House Republican calls for full NSA probe

Head of intelligence panel breaks ranks over domestic eavesdropping program

February 08, 2006|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON --A House Republican whose subcommittee oversees the National Security Agency broke ranks with the White House yesterday and called for a full congressional inquiry into the Bush administration's domestic eavesdropping program.

The lawmaker, Rep. Heather Wilson of New Mexico, chairwoman of the House Intelligence Subcommittee on Technical and Tactical Intelligence, said in an interview that she had "serious concerns" about the surveillance program.

By withholding information about its operations from many lawmakers, she said, the administration has deepened her apprehension about whom the agency is monitoring and why.

Wilson, who was a National Security Council aide in the administration of the elder George Bush, is the first Republican on either the House's Intelligence Committee or the Senate's to call for a full congressional investigation into the program, in which the NSA has been eavesdropping without warrants on the international communications of people inside the United States believed to have links with terrorists.

The congresswoman's discomfort with the operation appears to reflect deepening fissures among Republicans over the program's legal basis and political liabilities.

Many Republicans have strongly backed President Bush's power to use every tool at his disposal to fight terrorism, but four of the 10 Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee voiced concerns about the program at a hearing where Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales testified Monday.

A growing number of Republicans have called in recent days for Congress to consider amending federal wiretap laws to address the constitutional issues raised by the NSA operation.

Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, for one, said he considered some of the administration's legal justifications for the program "dangerous" in their implications, and he told Gonzales that he wanted to work on new legislation that would help those tracking terrorism "know what they can and can't do."

But the administration has said repeatedly since the program was disclosed in December that it considers further legislation unnecessary, believing that the president already has the legal authority to authorize the operation.

Vice President Dick Cheney reasserted that position yesterday in an interview on NewsHour With Jim Lehrer.

Members of Congress "have the right and the responsibility to suggest whatever they want to suggest" about changing wiretap law, Cheney said.

But "we have all the legal authority we need" already, he said, and a public debate over changes in the law could alert al-Qaida to tactics used by U.S. intelligence officials.

"It's important for us, if we're going to proceed legislatively, to keep in mind there's a price to be paid for that, and it might well in fact do irreparable damage to our capacity to collect information," Cheney said.

The administration, backed by Republican leaders in both houses, has also resisted calls for inquiries by either Congress or an independent investigator.

As for the politics, some Republicans say they are concerned that prolonged public scrutiny of the surveillance program could prove a distraction in this year's midterm congressional elections, and the administration has worked to contain any damage by aggressively defending the legality of the operation.

It has also limited its congressional briefings on the program's operational details to the so-called Gang of Eight - each party's leaders in the Senate and the House and on the two intelligence committees - and has agreed to full committee briefings only on the legal justifications for the operation, without discussing in detail how the NSA conducts it.

Wilson, who has not been included in the briefings, said in the interview yesterday that she considered the limited congressional briefings to be "increasingly untenable" because most lawmakers know little about the program.

She said the House Intelligence Committee needed to conduct a "painstaking" review, including not only classified briefings but also access to internal documents and staff interviews with NSA aides and intelligence officials.

Wilson, a former Air Force officer who is the only female veteran currently in Congress, has butted up against the administration previously over controversial policy issues, including Medicare and troop strength in Iraq.

She said she realized that voicing her concerns over the surveillance program could harm her relations with the administration.

"The president has his duty to do," she said, "but I have mine too, and I feel strongly about that."

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