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Panel chairman wants strict new wiretap rules

Sen. Rockefeller vows a more aggressive stand as his committee examines the White House's domestic spying policy.

January 24, 2007|Greg Miller | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday rejected the Bush administration's claim that it had brought a controversial domestic spying program into compliance with the law, saying he wanted strict new rules requiring the government to obtain a separate warrant every time it places a wiretap on a U.S. resident.

Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), who recently took over as chairman of the committee, also questioned whether the CIA should be running a secret prison network and said agency officers should be forced to follow the same restrictive rules as U.S. troops when interrogating detainees.

Rockefeller's comments came during an interview with The Times in which he was sharply critical of President Bush and said that his committee would be much more aggressive under Democratic control in investigating the administration's espionage activities.

Rockefeller said for the first time that he opposed the Bush administration's new position on its domestic wiretapping program, in which the National Security Agency has eavesdropped on international phone calls of U.S. residents without prior permission from a court.

The White House last week abandoned its previous position and said it would no longer allow the NSA to intercept such electronic communications without court approval. But officials, including Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales, refused to disclose details on the new guidelines.

Rockefeller said his own views on the eavesdropping effort ranged "from skeptical to dubious."

"At the very least, it doesn't satisfy me," he said.

Rockefeller, who has been briefed on the matter, declined to comment on specific aspects because much of the program remained classified. But he emphasized that he opposed any approach allowing the government to use a single warrant to place wiretaps on groups of suspects.

"You can't have at-large 'We'll take this slew of wiretaps and just include them under an order,' " Rockefeller said. "They have to be one by one."

Other government officials familiar with the wiretapping program have said that the new arrangement allows the government to obtain single warrants that cover "bundles" of wiretaps on multiple suspects. The streamlined process is allowed when the targets are not U.S. citizens or permanent residents.

That would give the government wide latitude to spy on those who are in the United States on work or school visas, as was the case with the Sept. 11 hijackers.

Rockefeller hinted that the Bush administration's new position relied on questionable legal interpretations, and that he would push his committee to close loopholes in domestic spying statutes.

The committee recently designated eight members of its staff to examine the NSA program and to begin drafting new requests for documents that the Bush administration had refused to turn over to the panel -- including the initial presidential order authorizing the domestic surveillance program.

Rockefeller said an upcoming hearing would focus on whether a secret overseas network of CIA prisons for terrorism suspects was still necessary. Even if the facilities are warranted, he said, CIA interrogators should comply with the Army interrogation field manual that bans most coercive methods, including physical force.

Rockefeller could face opposition on such issues from the top Republican on the panel, Sen. Christopher S. Bond of Missouri. Bond said in a telephone interview that he had been briefed on the NSA program and that it appeared to him "to meet all of our requirements."

He also said that though U.S. interrogators should abide by provisions of the Geneva Convention, it was unwise for the nation to publish its interrogation rules in a field manual that terrorists could access and study online.

Rockefeller in the interview was critical of Bush, saying the president relied too much on an insular group of advisors and exhibited disdain for Congress.

"It's been my general impression that they get by with the very least they can possibly tell us," Rockefeller said. "They consider Congress and the judiciary committee and the intelligence committees respectively a very large nuisance, and that they were elected to carry out their mandate from wherever."

Speaking of Bush, Rockefeller noted recent polls showing the president's approval ratings had fallen to as low as 33%.

"I don't think he cares," Rockefeller said. "And I think that's really important to understanding this whole process. If you did care, then you'd try to open up the process to ameliorate general dissatisfaction or cynicism. I don't think he has any interest in that."


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