Frist pushes GOP senators to resolve differences on domestic surveillance

But deep disagreement remains over how to rein in administration, some say

March 01, 2006|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- Senate Republican leader Bill Frist, stepping into the growing debate in his party about the Bush administration's domestic eavesdropping program, pushed a group of Republican senators yesterday to work out conflicting approaches to legislation to address the program.

His efforts reflect the increasing determination of Republican lawmakers to impose some form of oversight on the program, through which the administration has secretly sidestepped the existing legal authorities for years to spy on thousands of domestic communications with suspected terrorists abroad. But lawmakers and staff members leaving a meeting called by Frist said deep disagreement remained within the party over how to rein in the administration.

In a statement after the meeting, Frist said his "informal working group" had "produced great progress in unifying senators around a core approach to terrorist surveillance legislation."

He also made clear his own support for the program, calling it "constitutional, lawful and critical," and he said that the proposals discussed would "buttress" the program by providing statutory authority.

Still, people at the meeting, speaking on condition of anonymity because its deliberations were supposed to be confidential, said the group remained sharply divided.

On one side, Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania has proposed a bill that would require the administration to seek periodic approval for the program as a whole from the existing Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, as well as its approval for specific wiretaps.

Congress created the court in 1978 as part of a broad reform of intelligence agencies and gave it the power to issue special secret warrants to eavesdrop on specific suspected foreign agents, but the administration's program has so far circumvented the law.

But others in the meeting questioned whether the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court's approval for the whole program might risk rejection by the Supreme Court, according to the people who were present. Others argued that involving a court would clash with the president's war powers, according to the people present.

In contrast, Judiciary Committee member Mike DeWine of Ohio is proposing legislation that would give the administration authority to tap phone calls or e-mails with parties outside the country that involved a known member of a designated terrorist group on at least one end. In other cases, the administration could eavesdrop without any authorization for 45 days but would then need to seek validation from either the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court or a special congressional panel.

Specter and Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska objected that DeWine's proposal left the administration too much leeway to spy on suspects without seeking outside approval, according to the people present. They also worried the proposal would retroactively legitimize the program before Congress learns it scope.

In addition to Specter and DeWine and Hagel, several other Republican senators who have criticized the program or taken an interest in the legislation also participated or sent staff to the meeting, including Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina; Olympia J. Snowe of Maine; Jon Kyl of Arizona; Pat Roberts of Kansas, who is chairman of the Intelligence Committee; and Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who is the Republican whip.

The meeting took place as the Senate closed debate and prepared for a vote on a renewal of a revised version of the Patriot Act, ending an earlier intra-party squabble over the balance between national security and personal privacy. The administration reached a compromise last month with a small group of Republicans who held up the vote to demand modifications in the bill, arguing that it granted law enforcement authorities too much power.

Democrats continue to press for a full investigation of the surveillance program and complained that the committee had been hampered by the failure to hear testimony from former Attorney General John Ashcroft and former Deputy Attorney General James Comey, both of whom reportedly raised objections to some aspects of the program.

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