Congress gets briefing on secret NSA program

In turnabout, Bush provides details on domestic wiretaps

February 09, 2006|By SIOBHAN GORMAN | SIOBHAN GORMAN,SUN REPORTER

WASHINGTON -- A leading House Republican said the White House provided Congress for the first time yesterday with some operational details about the National Security Agency's warrantless domestic wiretapping program.

"There are some operational issues that they still don't want to go into in detail," said Rep. Heather Wilson of New Mexico, who announced the apparent turnabout less than a day after she went public with criticism of the Bush administration's refusal to provide the information.

Wilson, who chairs a House subcommittee that oversees the NSA, said the White House directed the agency's former director, Gen. Michael V. Hayden, and Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales to provide "more extensive information on the program" to the House Intelligence Committee. She said a previous scheduled closed-door session had been expanded to "include operational matters."

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said the Bush administration had decided "to provide a fuller understanding of how carefully tailored, structured, and monitored this program is." But she took issue with Wilson's characterization.

"We have not violated the principle that fuller details about the program's operational aspects will be given only to the Gang of Eight," she said.

Instead, she described yesterday's House session as "a highly classified briefing regarding the procedural aspects of the terrorist surveillance program."

For weeks, President Bush has insisted that it would compromise the secrecy of the NSA operation to inform more than the eight top congressional leaders about the program.

Vice President Dick Cheney, in a PBS interview Tuesday, said that providing information to all 35 members of the House and Senate intelligence committees is "not a good way to keep a secret."

Rep. Peter Hoekstra, the Michigan Republican who chairs the House Intelligence Committee, called the White House decision "a positive first step."

Hoekstra, one of the eight congressional leaders previously informed about the program, said in a statement that "while the briefing did not, and could not, cover the full operational aspects of the program, it will allow for increased committee oversight going forward."

The top Democrat on the committee, Rep. Jane Harman of California, another member of the so-called Gang of Eight, said "the ice is falling" and that the Bush administration is coming around to the view she and others in both parties have made about getting broader congressional support for the program.

But yesterday's briefing was far from complete, said Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, a Maryland Democrat whose district includes NSA headquarters, who called the briefing "a good start."

"There's a lot more detail that has to come out," he added.

During a break in the hearing, Wilson emerged to tell reporters that Hayden, now the country's No. 2 intelligence official, and Gonzales were "being very forthcoming." She said Hayden and Gonzales had faced tough questioning from lawmakers of both parties.

She added, "I don't think the White House would have made the decision that it did had I not stood up and said, `You must brief the Intelligence Committee.'"

The briefing could be a first step in a process that leads to congressional action on the secret NSA program, including changes to a 1978 law that governs domestic surveillance for intelligence collection. The Bush administration, which is resisting any changes, has said the law is too "cumbersome" for the 21st-century campaign against Islamic terrorism.

But members of Congress have said that without an understanding of how the NSA program works, they have been unable to assess the need for new legislation.

Bush, in defending the program, which he authorized in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, has said that the NSA did not seek warrants from the secret court established under the 1978 legislation because the law does not allow for the quick surveillance needed to track cell phones and e-mail.

Separately, Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who chairs the Judiciary Committee, announced that he is drafting a measure that would require the Bush administration to present details of the program to the secret court.

The goal, Specter said, would be to obtain a legal assessment of the NSA operation and a report to Congress on whether the warrantless program is constitutional.

siobhan.gorman@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Julie Hirschfeld Davis contributed to this article.

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