Panel to expand NSA spying probe

House subcommittee to seek detailed briefings on program


WASHINGTON -- The House Intelligence Committee announced plans yesterday to expand its scrutiny of a Bush administration spying program that has intercepted the e-mails and phone calls of U.S. residents in recent years without court warrants.

The move by the Republican-led committee underscores the extent to which members of both parties are willing to challenge the White House on a controversial counterterrorism operation, as well as to question the administration's reluctance to brief more than a handful of lawmakers on the program's existence.

Under the new arrangement, one of the House panel's subcommittees will seek detailed briefings on the program, which is run by the National Security Agency. At the same time, the full committee plans to start a review of domestic espionage laws to determine whether they should be overhauled to reflect changes in communication technology and the evolving terrorist threat.

Rep. Peter Hoekstra, a Michigan Republican who is head of the Intelligence Committee, has been a staunch supporter of the NSA program. But he said in a prepared statement yesterday that his committee needed to "expand and increase oversight of this critical terrorism prevention tool."

Rep. Jane Harman, the ranking Democrat on the panel, described the plan as "the beginning of the road, not the end" in terms of congressional scrutiny of the domestic spying operation. Harman, of California, said that the White House is being too restrictive in sharing information about the program.

"More people on our committee will get a full brief on the operational details of the program," Harman said in a telephone interview. "But I think every member on the committee needs to be briefed. I think the law requires it."

It's not clear whether the White House will go along with the House plan. Jamal Ware, a spokesman for the House panel, said the White House had not agreed to provide detailed briefings on the NSA operation to one of the panel's subcommittees.

"This is an agreement within the committee to pursue this arrangement," he said.

President Bush secretly launched the eavesdropping effort shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks. Bush authorized the NSA to monitor calls between U.S. residents and people overseas suspected of having ties to al-Qaida.

The 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act ordinarily requires the government to obtain warrants from a special court before eavesdropping on U.S. residents. But President Bush authorized the NSA to bypass that process, and the White House has argued that the president had the authority to do so to protect the nation.

Members of both parties in Congress have expressed misgivings with that White House position, and leading Republicans in the Senate have recently begun negotiating with the White House on legislation that would either specifically exempt the NSA program from FISA or require the program to comply with it.

Several senior Senate aides said yesterday that Sen. Pat Roberts, a Kansas Republican who is head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, was leaning toward creating a subcommittee that would oversee the NSA program, similar to the proposed arrangement in the House. Senate Democrats have objected to that idea, saying the full committee should have access to details on the NSA's domestic operations.

Moderate Republicans have signaled they may break with the White House and support a Senate investigation unless the NSA program is brought into compliance with FISA. A senior aide on the Senate Intelligence Committee said yesterday that if a deal with the White House isn't reached before next week, "the chances of this committee voting for an investigation is pretty high."

Greg Miller writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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