By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 19, 2006
The Bush administration appears to have violated the National Security Act by limiting its briefings about a warrantless domestic eavesdropping program to congressional leaders, according to a memo from Congress's research arm released yesterday.
The Congressional Research Service opinion said that the amended 1947 law requires President Bush to keep all members of the House and Senate intelligence committees "fully and currently informed" of such intelligence activities as the domestic surveillance effort.
The memo from national security specialist Alfred Cumming is the second report this month from CRS to question the legality of aspects of Bush's domestic spying program. A Jan. 6 report concluded that the administration's justifications for the program conflicted with current law.
Yesterday's analysis was requested by Rep. Jane Harman (Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee, who wrote in a letter to Bush earlier this month that limiting information about the eavesdropping program violated the law and provided for poor oversight.
The White House has said it informed congressional leaders about the NSA program in more than a dozen briefings, but has refused to provide further details. At a minimum, the briefings included the chairmen of the House and Senate intelligence oversight committees and the two ranking Democrats, known collectively as the "Gang of Four," according to various sources.
"We believe that Congress was appropriately briefed," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said in a statement last night.
Bush has publicly acknowledged issuing an order after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that allowed the National Security Agency to intercept telephone and e-mail exchanges between the United States and overseas without court authorization. The cases were limited to people suspected of al Qaeda ties, Bush and his aides said.
Cumming's analysis found that both intelligence committees should have been briefed because the program involved intelligence collection activities.
The only exception in the law applies to covert actions, Cumming found, and those programs must be reported to the "Gang of Eight," which includes House and Senate leaders in addition to heads of the intelligence panels. The administration can also withhold some operational details in rare circumstances, but that does not apply to the existence of entire programs, he wrote.
Unless the White House contends the program is a covert action, the memo said, "limiting congressional notification of the NSA program to the Gang of Eight . . . would appear to be inconsistent with the law."
Also yesterday, the Electronic Privacy Information Center said it would file a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit today demanding information about the NSA spying. The American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights filed separate lawsuits Tuesday asserting that Bush exceeded his authority and violated Fourth Amendment guarantees in authorizing the NSA surveillance.