MICHELE NORRIS, host:
This week the Bush administration made another move that seemed to be a retreat from an earlier hard-line stance. This one had to do with the National Security Agency's warrantless eavesdropping program. Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez said the president could accept a proposal that would allow a secret court to review the constitutionality of the program. The White House had previously insisted the president had full authority for the eavesdropping. NPR's David Welna reports.
DAVID WELNA reporting:
As he briefed reporters here at the capital on the agreement he'd reached with President Bush, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter declared the bill he's drawn up will help the president fight terrorism and still subject his electronic surveillance program to court review. But there's a catch, as Specter duly noted, it's up to the president, whether he actually calls for such a court review.
Senator ARLEN SPECTER (Republican, Pennsylvania; Chairman, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman): The bill does not mandate the president to submit the program to the court because the president did not want to institutionally bind presidents in the future. And I respected that and understood his point of view. And my objective is to get this program submitted to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and the president has made the commitment to do that.
WELNA: But the commitment only apples to the language that Specter, the president and Vice President Cheney hashed out over the past month. Caroline Fredrickson of the American Civil Liberties Union, warns that if that bill were to be passed as is by Congress, it would amount to a White House sham.
Ms. CAROLINE FREDRICKSON (American Civil Liberties Union): It's a sleight of hand on their part actually to get people to think in this country that somehow the president is bringing this program under the law, when in fact, he's going to continue to be able to engage in any kind of surveillance he would like without court oversight. And then occasionally, if he wants the court's blessing, he can bring a program to the court and they can take a look at it.
WELNA: Under Specter's bill, the court would only rule once on the overall constitutionality of the NSA's warrantless surveillance. A ruling that may never be made public, and which could be appealed by the White House, all the way to the Supreme Court. New Mexico Republican Heather Wilson, whose on the House Intelligence Committee says what Specter's proposing is not what the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court was set up to do.
Representative HEATHER WILSON (Republican, New Mexico): It seems a little odd to me to ask the FISA court to rule on the constitutionality of a program, or of an action by the executive branch. That's not what they do. Their job is to look at warrants and approve warrants for foreign intelligence surveillance in the United States. It's a very different - a very different job.
WELNA: Unlike Judiciary Chair Specter, who's never been briefed on the NSA program, Wilson has been told both how the warrantless spying is done and why. She says it's not enough to have a single court ruling on the program's constitutionality and she plans to unveil her own legislation next week, aimed at increasing oversight of the spying program.
Rep. WILSON: I think we need to change the law and update the law. The president argues, and his attorney general argues, that they have full constitutional authority to do what they're doing now. Others disagree. I have focused on what do we need to do to make sure that we can use these very powerful tools to spy on our enemies, as we do while we protect civil liberties by dividing power among three branches of government.
WELNA: Wilson says conferred with fellow Republicans on her bill, and hopes to keep building support for it in the House. But Specter's just as confident that his legislation will prevail.
Sen. SPECTER: I believe the committee will accept the bill. I believe the Senate will accept the bill. And with the president's backing, I think the House will as well.
WELNA: Wilson's not so sure about that.
Rep. WILSON: Senator Specter hasn't discussed the bill with the House members, that I'm aware of.
WELNA: In fact both Specter and Wilson face uphill battles. In Specter's case there could be fierce opposition from the Senate Intelligence Committee, which sees the NSA program as part of its oversight responsibilities. In Wilson's case, many fellow Republicans are far less alarmed than she is about the program's potential threat to civil liberties. David Welna, NPR News, the Capital.