Senate Panel Declines Domestic-Surveillance Probe

The Senate Intelligence Committee rejects an investigation into the domestic-surveillance program that President Bush set up more than four years ago. Instead, the committee created a panel to keep closer tabs on the program.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. We'll spend much of this hour reporting on the powers of observation. We'll start in Congress, where the House voted to renew the Patriot Act last night. Most investigative powers in that anti-terrorism bill would become permanent.

MONTAGNE: In the Senate, a key committee decided how closely to examine the National Security Agency. Lawmakers created a panel to keep watch on the agency's eavesdropping without court permission. They decided against a full investigation, as NPR's David Welna reports.

DAVID WELNA reporting:

Until now, only eight of Congress' 535 members have been fully briefed by the Bush Administration on the National Security Agency's warrantless spying. But yesterday, Pat Roberts, the Republican Chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, announced that under a deal struck with the White House, seven members of his panel will now be briefed as well. They'll form a new subcommittee charged with oversight of the program. Roberts pushed for that arrangement, despite Democrats' demands that there should first be an investigation of the covert spying.

Senator PAT ROBERTS (Republican, Kansas): When it comes to national security, I prefer accommodation over confrontation, whenever possible. We should fight the enemy. We should not fight each other.

WELNA: But after a closed door meeting of the intelligence panel, its top Democrat was seething. Vice Chairman Jay Rockefeller told reporters the traditionally bipartisan intelligence panel had split along party lines when deciding whether to probe the NSA spying.

Senator JAY ROCKEFELLER (Democrat, West Virginia): The Republican majority has voted down my motion to have a careful and fact-based review of the National Security Agency's surveillance eavesdropping activities inside the United States.

WELNA: Rockefeller accused the panel's Republicans of doing the White House's bidding. But Maine Republican Olympia Snowe, who late last year joined Democrats calls for an investigation into the NSA spying, said creating an oversight panel was a better solution. Snowe and several other Republican critics of the NSA spying yesterday also proposed a new bill. Snowe said it would impose on the White House restrictions from both Congress and the courts, something the White House has resisted.

Senator OLYMPIA SNOWE (Republican, Maine): Senator Rockefeller isn't privy to our phone calls to understand the considerable reluctance in part of the White House. We've reset the creation of a subcommittee, or establishing any kind of Congressional and judicial oversight. I think that that was abundantly clear from the outset. We didn't get their approval in moving forward.

WELNA: But the legislation does make some concessions. For example, it grants statutory authority for the president to order warrantless surveillance of Americans for up to 45 days, with no oversight. That spying could be renewed every 45 days, as long as Congressional overseers raise no objections. Only if criminal activity is detected would the NSA have to obtain a warrant to continue its surveillance. Nebraska Republican Chuck Hagle says the legislation, which he co-sponsored, looks to the future, despite lingering questions about the program's first four years.

Senator CHUCK HAGLE (Republican, Nebraska): Some of us have a difference of opinion with the administration on whether the president had the authority to carry out the program, even though most of us don't know exactly what the program was.

WELNA: The NSA oversight bill was first proposed by Ohio Republican Mike DeWine. And yesterday, White House Spokesman Scott McClellan acknowledged the Bush Administration has been talking with DeWine about a legislative fix. Though McClellan also made it clear he did not think any laws have been broken.

Mr. SCOTT MCCLELLAN (White House Spokesman): We want to continue to work with him and others on legislation that would codify into law what the president's authority already is.

WELNA: But Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid said most members of Congress don't even know what the NSA program consists of.

Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada): We can't talk about legislating until we find out what the president is doing. We know that there's domestic spying, and we know that it's unconstitutional and illegal. The extent of it, we don't know.

WELNA: What's more, Arlen Specter, the Republican who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, yesterday suggested at an appropriations committee hearing that he may take action, unless he learns more about the NSA spying.

Senator ARLEN SPECTER (Republican, Pennsylvania): But I want to put the administration on notice, and this committee on notice that I may be looking for an amendment to limit funding as to the electronic surveillance program--which is the power of the purse if we can't get an answer in any other way.

WELNA: What's needed, Specter said, is a political solution to the NSA standoff. But it now appears unlikely a congressional investigation will be part of that solution.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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