Security Bills Eyed Ahead of Campaign Break

En route to a recess and the wrap-up of the mid-term campaign season, Republican leaders in Congress are trying to push through two national security bills. One involves the ongoing debate over how to handle enemy combatants; the other focuses on President Bush's domestic surveillance efforts.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This is the last week that Congress meets before leaving for the fall campaign season, and Republican leaders are rushing to approve two major pieces of national security legislation. One is a plan to try the enemy combatants, as they're called, now being held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. An agreement was reached last week and the measure is expected to be voted on by the House and Senate in the next few days.

The other national security legislation would authorize a program of warrantless wiretaps. These are the wiretaps and other surveillance methods that began in secret after 9/11.

A group of senators yesterday announced they had reached agreement with the White House on some issues that had caused them to block that bill. And we're going to learn more this morning from NPR congressional correspondent Brian Naylor.

Brian, good morning.

BRIAN NAYLOR: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: So what were the senators' objections to this proposal, which would legalize, in effect, these wiretaps without warrants?

NAYLOR: Well, the three senators - Murkowski of Alaska, Sununu of New Hampshire, and Craig of Idaho - first of all, they're all Republicans, and they had objected to the measure on what were essentially civil liberties grounds. The bill had been drafted by the Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman, Arlen Specter, and had the backing of the White House. But the dissident senators said that the measure was too far-reaching, it left too much power in the hands of the executive branch. And yesterday, they said they won three changes to the bill.

The first removes language that refers to the president's inherent constitutional authority to pursue national security programs. Critics say that sort of language just gives the president carte blanche to do whatever he wants. Another change says even if the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court approves of the overall scope of the wiretapping program, the administration still has to go back to the court to get approval to wiretap specific individuals.

And the other change the senators won is that even if court gives them permission to listen in on conversations of an agent of a foreign power, that doesn't include the authority to listen in on the conversations of U.S. citizens.

INSKEEP: And so this is the second time now that the White House has proposed national security legislation and run into opposition from Republicans, and there's been a compromise. Now that there's been that compromise, is there enough support to assure passage of these warrantless wiretaps?

NAYLOR: I think so. Senator Craig, who is one of the dissidents on the wiretapping bill, said that he figured by the end of the day, today, he'd have a bill he could support. And I think the other dissidents feel about the same. It's not clear whether Democrats will fall in line, because they've had many objections, but it wouldn't seem likely that they'd be able to stop the bill.

And Democrats and other critics have company. A group of more than a dozen prominent national security officials, including former FBI and CIA Director William Webster, released a statement opposing the proposal. They said it would return surveillance law to what they describe as murky waters.

INSKEEP: Now, Brian, what about this other measure - the bill that sets up the system to try the so-called enemy combatants? What happens with it?

NAYLOR: Well, it would seem well on its way to passage. It wouldn't be - it's possible the Senate might take it up as soon as today or tomorrow, although there are still some unresolved issues. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Specter held a hearing yesterday on the measure. His problem - the bill denies enemy combatants the right to challenge their detainment, what's known as habeas corpus - defendants in military and criminal courts, of course, have that right.

So Specter wants to take that provision out of the bill. He says it's unconstitutional, as it's now written. And he too has some prominent critics -or some prominent allies. Among them Kenneth Starr - who investigated President Clinton - said the bill would undermine U.S. credibility as it wages war on terrorists. And there's also a new report this morning, Steve, in The Washington Post, that the definition of just who can be detained under the measure is much broader than previous versions of the bill. And so that could still give lawmakers some pause.

INSKEEP: Okay, so it's Tuesday. Very briefly, are these bills going to pass by Friday?

NAYLOR: I think the chance that the detainees bill passing is very good, there's support in both the House and the Senate. The surveillance program, the odds are somewhat longer. Of course, Republican leaders really want to approve both of them and so they can use them in the coming campaign, and especially if most Democrats vote against them.

INSKEEP: Brian, thanks very much.

NAYLOR: All right, Steve. Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's congressional correspondent Brian Naylor.

You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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