Hill Critics Rip NSA Spying, But Remedy Is Unclear

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President Bush's claim to authority for warrantless domestic surveillance is met with more congressional skepticism. But it remains unclear how Congress plans to exercise more oversight.


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

Congress is deciding how much it really wants to do about eavesdropping by the National Security Agency. President Bush acknowledged the agency is spying on Americans and U.S. residents without court permission.

INSKEEP: Lawmakers in both parties say the president went around Congress and went around the courts. Their dilemma is whether to try changing a program that the White House describes as an important tool against terrorists.

NPR's David Welna attended a Senate hearing where that dilemma was on display. And, David, what did you see yesterday?

DAVID WELNA reporting:

Well, Steve, I saw quite a great deal of frustration, especially among Democrats, with how little Congress still knows about this four-year-old spying program, which was only revealed in December by the New York Times. And that's probably because there's been reluctance among the Republican chairman of most oversight committees to hold public hearings examining President Bush's authority. That could risk raising questions about their own commitment to hunting down suspected terrorists.

And, I think, by contrast, you have several congressional committees right now holding hearings on the Dubai Ports deal, a move that's more likely to be seen as being tough on terrorist threats.

But the one lawmaker who has tackled the NSA spying program, Steve, is Arlen Specter. He's the Republican who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee. And Specter got Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to testify on the NSA program three weeks ago. And he'd hoped to have former Attorney General John Ashcroft testify for this second hearing, along with former Deputy Attorney General James Comey.

Members of the committee wanted to know more about what happened in March of 2004 when Ashcroft underwent emergency gallbladder surgery. And he was visited at the hospital by Comey. And it appears the reason was that the NSA spying program had to be suspended at that time because of questions being raised about it by federal judges. But Specter did not get clearance from the Bush Administration for Ashcroft and Comey to come and testify. And he had this to say about that at yesterday's hearing.

Representative ARLEN SPECTER (Chairman, Senate Judiciary Committee): I'd like to know what happened at the hospital with Attorney General Ashcroft and Deputy Attorney General Comey. But that does intrude on executive privilege--on what lawyers are talking about if they had disagreements. Well, the issue is not closed. We're going to continue to work on it.

INSKEEP: So that's what the Senate Judiciary Committee tried to focus on yesterday and failed to do. What did they focus on?

WELNA: Well, the panel of witnesses included former CIA Director James Woolsey and several legal scholars. And the central question was: does the president have wartime powers to ignore a federal law that says all electronic spying involving people in the U.S. has to be done with a warrant from a special court?

And Woolsey agreed with President Bush's claim that his constitutional status as commander-in-chief does give him the power to do what's necessary to protect the nation from terrorism. But others argued that recognizing such sweeping power in a president makes Congress all but irrelevant, even though the president says Congress also gave him authority to carry out the spying program when it authorized the use of military force after the 9/11 attacks. But that's an argument that few lawmakers seem to be buying.

INSKEEP: Interesting that you have President Clinton and the CIA director, or one of them, suggesting that this program may be okay, but you have people in President Bush's own party, Republicans, expressing concern about it.

WELNA: Right, I think it's mainly because there's a concern about protecting the Fourth Amendment, which says people have a right to be secure against unreasonable searches. And there's also a lot of resentment about this having been kept from most members of Congress.

There's a strong push in fact, under way by Democrats and a few Republicans in the Senate Intelligence Committee to actually investigate the spying program. And unless some way is found for Congress to have oversight of that program, that committee could well vote on holding an investigation next week.

INSKEEP: David, thanks very much?

WELNA: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR Congressional Correspondent David Welna.

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