Probe of spying blocked

Senate Republicans promise closer oversight by a new subcommittee

March 08, 2006|By GREG MILLER AND MAURA REYNOLDS | GREG MILLER AND MAURA REYNOLDS,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- Republican members of the Senate Intelligence Committee defeated yesterday a Democratic push to investigate a domestic espionage operation authorized by President Bush, but they vowed to increase scrutiny of the controversial program through a newly created subcommittee.

The developments enraged Democrats but delivered mixed results for the White House, which avoided a full-scale investigation of the spying operation by agreeing to provide detailed briefings on the program to a larger number of lawmakers, according to Senate Republicans.

Emerging from a closed-door session in which Democrats lost two party-line votes, Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, a West Virginia Democrat who is the vice chairman of the committee, said the outcome pushed the panel "further into irrelevancy" and reflected the influence of the Bush administration.

"The committee is, to put it bluntly, basically under the control of the White House," said Rockefeller, who had pushed for a committee investigation and argued that all members of the panel ought to have full access to information on the program.

Republicans rejected Rockefeller's view and said the deal reached yesterday required the White House to back down from its long-standing refusal to provide information on the domestic spying operation to more than handful of lawmakers.

"We should fight the enemy, not each other," said Sen. Pat Roberts, a Kansas Republican who chairs the committee.

Roberts said Republicans are working with the White House on legislation that would give the government clearer authority to monitor Americans' international calls and e-mails but would place some new controls on such eavesdropping efforts.

The deal announced yesterday would create a new subcommittee with seven members - four Republicans and three Democrats - that would get regular briefings on the domestic surveillance activities of the National Security Agency, which eavesdrops on calls and e-mail traffic around the world.

Roberts and other Republicans said the White House had agreed to provide members of the new subcommittee extensive access, equivalent to that previously restricted to the chairman and vice chairman.

Since the spying program's inception in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, the White House had allowed only eight members of Congress - the majority leaders in each house and the ranking members of the two intelligence committees - to attend intermittent briefings on the program at the White House.

The House Intelligence Committee took a similar step last week, saying it would designate one of its existing subcommittees to examine and hold regular hearings on the NSA operation, which involves intercepting the communications of Americans without first obtaining a court order.

The White House has defended the operation, saying it has been a critical tool in the war on terrorism and allows eavesdropping on Americans only in cases when they are in contact with individuals overseas who are suspected of having ties to the al-Qaida terrorist network.

But critics have argued that Bush had no authority to launch the program and that it violates 1970s statutes that placed strict limits on domestic spying operations in response to abuses during the Nixon administration.

Bush's program has prompted an outcry even among some Republicans, who have questioned its legality and asked whether it was necessary to bypass a system that allows domestic eavesdropping as long as the government obtains the permission of a special foreign intelligence court.

Several prominent Republican skeptics of the program - including Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Olympia J. Snowe of Maine - had warned they might favor a congressional investigation but voted against doing so yesterday to back the creation of a new subcommittee instead.

Rockefeller complained that giving seven members of the committee expanded access to information on the NSA program leaves eight remaining members of the panel in the dark.

He asked how they could be effective in considering new legislation on the program when they will not have access to basic information about it, including how many phone calls and e-mails have been intercepted without warrants and how many Americans have been subject to such surveillance.

Nevertheless, Republicans said they would now move forward with crafting new legislation explicitly authorizing the NSA program.

Greg Miller and Maura Reynolds write for Los Angeles Times.

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