Congress Receives Briefings on NSA Spying
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
The Senate Intelligence Committee has oversight responsibility for the nation's biggest electronic spying unit, the National Security Agency. And yet it was only yesterday that all 15 members of that committee got briefed for the first time on the warrantless domestic spying the NSA's been doing for more than four years. The House Intelligence Panel got a similar briefing the day before. Some members say it's a sign the White House is scrambling to quell bipartisan criticism of the spying program. Here's NPR's David Welna.
DAVID WELNA reporting:
As intelligence panel members gathered behind closed doors for a briefing by Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez, and NSA Chief General Michael Hayden, President Bush was publicly describing an al-Qaeda plot to fly an airplane into the tallest building in Los Angeles four years ago. The president didn't actually say the plot was foiled thanks to the warrantless eavesdropping program, he'd ordered the NSA to carry out, but that was clearly the impression he left with one of the panels' members, California Democrat Dianne Feinstein.
Senator DIANNE FEINSTEIN (Democrat, California): I think the President implied that the knowledge from that came from that program. I have no way of knowing whether it did or it didn't.
WELNA: Another Democrat said he had a pretty good idea of why yesterday's intelligence committee briefing took place. Oregon's Ron Wyden said, Republicans have joined Democrats in demanding explanations.
Senator RON WYDEN (Democrat, Oregon): I can tell you, from a policy standpoint, that the most significant development in the last 36 hours is a new bipartisan focus, that there needs to be accountability in this program.
WELNA: No members gave details of the classified briefing, but Republican Chairman Pat Roberts declared it a success.
Senator PAT ROBERTS (Republican, Kansas): I do think that this session has made the members certainly more knowledgeable, some more supportive of details of the terrorist surveillance program; I hope there is a greater degree of confidence if we're going to have any chance of keeping this capability to prevent a terrorist attack on the Unites States.
WELNA: Frustrated Democrats, though, said they learned too little from the two men sent to brief them. Jay Rockefeller is the panel's top Democrat.
Senator JAY ROCKEFELLER (Democrat, West Virginia): There's no question in my mind that we have to have the Attorney General and General Hayden back. Most of the questions that were asked were, in fact, not answered. And they were not answered on the basis of what was referred to as operational reasons.
WELNA: Rockefeller said Gonzales and Hayden may have gone to the committee in hopes of short-stopping an investigation into the NSA's spying program. But he said the panel plans to vote next week on such a probe. At least two Republican members have also expressed support for it. Missouri Republican Kit Bond, though, called an investigation a bad idea.
Senator KIT BOND (Republican, Missouri): The more we talk about it the worse we are on our ability to intercept it. It needed information in our intelligence activities. So, I think, to have further public discussion of it is very hurtful to our national intelligence.
WELNA: Ohio Republican Mike DeWine said it's Congress that has the solution to this showdown.
Senator MIKE DeWINE (Republican, Ohio): I believe that we can end this controversy about the constitutionality of this program very simply. And that is to deal with it by legislation.
WELNA: To which White House spokesman Scott McClellan had this reply.
Mr. SCOTT McCLELLAN (Spokesman, White House): In terms of any legislation or ideas, I think that there is a high bar to overcome for such ideas in our view.
WELNA: Those may well be fighting words not just for congressional Democrats, but for some dubious Republicans as well.
David Welna, NPR News.
MONTAGNE: And you can decode the story behind the domestic surveillance debate at NPR.org.