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THE NATION

House Panel to Seek More Oversight of Spy Program

Members of both parties want a closer look at the domestic surveillance operation. It's not clear whether the White House will go along.

March 03, 2006|Greg Miller | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The House Intelligence Committee announced plans Thursday to expand its scrutiny of a Bush administration spying program that has intercepted international e-mails and phone calls of U.S. residents in recent years without court warrants.

The move by the Republican-led committee underscores the extent to which members of both parties are willing to challenge the White House on the controversial counter-terrorism operation and the administration's reluctance to brief more than a few lawmakers on the program.

Under the arrangement, one of the panel's subcommittees will seek detailed briefings on the National Security Agency program. The full committee plans to study whether domestic espionage laws should be overhauled to reflect changes in communication technology and the evolving terrorist threat.

Intelligence Committee Chairman Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.), a staunch supporter of the National Security Agency program, said in a prepared statement Thursday that his committee needed to "increase oversight of this critical terrorism prevention tool."

Ranking committee Democrat Jane Harman of Venice described the panel's plans as "the beginning of the road, not the end" for congressional scrutiny of the domestic spying operation. The White House is not sharing enough information about the program, she said.

"More people on our committee will get a full brief on the operational details of the program," Harman said in a telephone interview. "But I think every member on the committee needs to be briefed. I think the law requires it."

It's not clear whether the White House will go along with the plan. Committee spokesman Jamal D. Ware said the White House had not agreed to brief the subcommittee in detail about the operation.

"This is an agreement within the committee to pursue this arrangement," he said.

Shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, President Bush secretly authorized the National Security Agency to monitor calls between U.S. residents and individuals abroad suspected of having ties to Al Qaeda.

The 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act ordinarily requires the government to obtain warrants from a special court before eavesdropping on U.S. residents, but Bush let the National Security Agency bypass that process. The White House has argued he had the authority to do so to protect the nation.

Members of Congress from both parties have expressed misgivings about that assertion, and leading Senate Republicans recently began negotiating with the White House on legislation to specifically state whether the program is subject to or exempt from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

Several senior Senate aides said Thursday that Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) was leaning toward creating a subcommittee to oversee the program, similar to the proposed House Intelligence Committee arrangement. Senate Democrats have objected, saying the full committee should have access to details on domestic spying operations.

Moderate Republicans have signaled they may break with the White House and support a Senate inquiry unless the program is brought into compliance with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

A senior aide on the Senate Intelligence Committee said Thursday that if a deal with the White House was not reached before next week, "the chances of this committee voting for an investigation is pretty high."

Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) introduced legislation Thursday calling for a nonpartisan panel like the Sept. 11 commission to investigate the wiretapping controversy.

In the House, officials said it had not been decided which intelligence subcommittee should review the program.

Rep. Heather A. Wilson (R-N.M.), who leads a subcommittee that monitors other National Security Agency operations, said any review should be extensive -- requesting records, interviewing National Security Agency officials, and scrutinizing agency procedures and training manuals, among other measures.

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