President Bush has called on Congress to approve the warrantless eavesdropping program the National Security Agency has been pursuing for most of the last five years. The New York Times revealed the program last year, and a federal court in Michigan has ruled it unconstitutional.
Since shortly after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the NSA has been eavesdropping on phone calls into the United States from suspected terrorists overseas -- without getting a warrant from the special court set up to do so.
Critics say it amounts to illegal spying on Americans, But the White House says the program is essential to thwarting terrorist plots.
Bills pending in Congress would try to bring the monitoring program into line with the Constitution. But getting a bill to the floor for a vote is proving to be a challenge.
Today, the Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Arlen Specter, took up the Pennsylvania Republican's bill on the matter.
"The legislation which I have proposed," Specter said, "as you all know, has the agreement of the President to pursue it." He then reiterated that President Bush has pledged to bring the program under judicial review.
Specter's plan would loosen some of the rules requiring the government to get a warrant from the FISA, or Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, before conducting a wiretap.
The plan has the White House's stamp of approval, which makes some Democrats inherently suspicious. Many, like Vermont's Patrick Leahy, say the problem isn't the FISA system -- it's the fact that the White House and NSA have ignored it.
"The monitoring of communications with suspected terrorists is vitally important," Leahy said.
"But when you're monitoring Americans, it has to be done lawfully with checks and balances, and respect Americans' privacy."
Specter's bill did not make it out of committee discussions. Democrats introduced a series of amendments, and stretched the meeting past its two-hour limit. Sen. Specter's office says he'll bring the bill up again next week.