Cheney supports wiretap authority

December 21, 2005|By MAURA REYNOLDS

WASHINGTON -- President Bush's decision to bypass court review and authorize domestic wiretapping by executive order was part of a concerted effort to rebuild presidential powers weakened in the 1970s as a result of the Watergate scandal and the Vietnam War, Vice President Dick Cheney said yesterday.

Returning from a trip to the Middle East, Cheney said that threats facing the country require that the president's authority under the Constitution be "unimpaired."

"Watergate and a lot of the things around Watergate and Vietnam, both during the 1970s, served, I think, to erode the authority ... the president needs to be effective, especially in the national security area," Cheney said. "Especially in the day and age we live in ... the president of the United States needs to have his constitutional powers unimpaired, if you will, in terms of the conduct of national security policy."

Cheney dismissed the idea that Americans are concerned about the potential for abuse of power, saying that any backlash is likely to punish the president's critics, not the president.

"The president and I believe very deeply that there is a hell of a threat," Cheney said. He said "the vast majority" of Americans supports the Bush administration's surveillance policies.

"And so if there's a backlash pending, I think the backlash is going to be against those who are suggesting [that] somehow we shouldn't take these steps in order to defend the country," Cheney said.

On Capitol Hill, calls for a congressional investigation escalated, with a group of Democrats and Republicans on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence asking to join hearings scheduled by the Judiciary Committee.

Lawmakers continued to trade claims and accusations over whether they were informed by the Bush administration about the program, whether they had objected that it might erode civil liberties, and whether their objections even mattered. The program allowed the National Security Agency to conduct warrantless surveillance in the United States.

Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, the top Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, said Monday that he wrote Cheney after a briefing in 2003 and expressed concern about the surveillance.

However, Sen. Pat Roberts, the Kansas Republican who chairs the intelligence committee, said the West Virginia senator misrepresented his views.

"For the nearly three years [Rockefeller] has served as vice chairman, I have heard no objection from him about this valuable program," Roberts said in a statement. "Now, when it appears to be politically advantageous, Senator Rockefeller has chosen to release his two-year-old letter. Forgive me if I find this to be inconsistent and a bit disingenuous."

Rockefeller retorted sharply, saying: "From the first day I learned of this program, I made my concerns known to the vice president and to others who were briefed. The White House never addressed my concerns.

"The real question is whether the administration lived up to its statutory requirement to fully inform Congress and allow for adequate oversight and debate. The simple answer is no," he said.

To bolster Rockefeller's argument, Senate Democrats issued a memo yesterday concerning what are known as "Gang of 8" notifications - periodic briefings the White House holds with the top majority and minority leaders of the two chambers of Congress and the intelligence committees.

Under the 1947 National Security Act, the executive branch is required to keep Congress "fully and currently informed of all intelligence activities." The Gang of 8 notifications were designed to fulfill that requirement in the most sensitive cases, the Democrats' memo said.

Members attending such briefings are not allowed to take notes or discuss the subject with other members of Congress or staff. In effect, Rockefeller said, the system makes it impossible for members of Congress to object in any meaningful way.

"By prohibiting discussion of the program with any additional members of Congress or counsel, the White House took away all of the legislative remedies that would normally be available, even in a classified context," Rockefeller said.

Rep. Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat and one of the congressional leaders briefed about the program, asked the NSA yesterday to declassify a letter she wrote several years ago in which she expressed concerns.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan continued to insist that Congress was informed but declined to answer questions about whether members of Congress could act on that information.

The disclosures drew new criticism from Democrats outside Congress after reports yesterday of comments in which Bush seemed to assure his audience that when the government conducts wiretaps, it does so only with court approval.

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