Correction to This Article
A Feb. 17 article incorrectly described the National Security Archive Fund as a privacy advocacy group. The fund advocates open government.

Senate Rejects Wiretapping Probe

By Charles Babington and Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, February 17, 2006

The Bush administration helped derail a Senate bid to investigate a warrantless eavesdropping program yesterday after signaling it would reject Congress's request to have former attorney general John D. Ashcroft and other officials testify about the program's legality. The actions underscored a dramatic and possibly permanent drop in momentum for a congressional inquiry, which had seemed likely two months ago.

Senate Democrats said the Republican-led Congress was abdicating its obligations to oversee a controversial program in which the National Security Agency has monitored perhaps thousands of phone calls and e-mails involving U.S. residents and foreign parties without obtaining warrants from a secret court that handles such matters.

"It is more than apparent to me that the White House has applied heavy pressure in recent days, in recent weeks, to prevent the committee from doing its job," Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), vice chairman of the intelligence committee, said after the panel voted along party lines not to consider his motion for an investigation.

There was one setback, however, to the administration's efforts to keep tight wraps on the NSA operation. Yesterday, a federal judge ordered the Justice Department to turn over its internal documents and legal opinions about the program within 20 days -- or explain its reasons for refusing.

Before yesterday's closed-door meeting of the intelligence panel began, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said that the NSA program does not require "congressional authorization" but that the administration is "open to ideas regarding legislation." Committee sources said such comments -- characterized as meaningful by Republicans but empty by Democrats -- apparently persuaded GOP moderates to back away from earlier calls for a congressional investigation into the program.

After the meeting, Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) told reporters: "The administration is now committed to legislation and has agreed to brief more intelligence committee members on the nature of the surveillance program. The details of this agreement will take some time to work out."

Democrats said the administration's overture is so vague that it amounts to nothing, calling it a stalling tactic to give Republican lawmakers political cover for rejecting a full inquiry. "For the past three years, the Senate intelligence committee has avoided carrying out its oversight of our nation's intelligence programs whenever the White House becomes uncomfortable with the questions being asked," Rockefeller told reporters. "The very independence of this committee is called into question."

In December, two Republicans on the committee -- Olympia J. Snowe (Maine) and Chuck Hagel (Neb.) -- called for a congressional investigation of the NSA program. Yesterday, they supported the move that adjourned the meeting without voting on Rockefeller's motion.

Snowe said in a statement: "The administration must demonstrate its commitment to avoiding a constitutional deadlock by engaging in good-faith negotiations."

McClellan and Roberts cited efforts by committee member Mike DeWine (R-Ohio). DeWine, who will face a tough reelection battle this fall, is drafting legislation that would exempt the NSA program from the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The law provides a mechanism for secret warrants for wiretaps in anti-terrorism investigations. But several key Republicans, including House intelligence committee member Heather A. Wilson (N.M.) and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (Pa.), say the NSA program should fall under FISA guidelines.

In the House, the intelligence committee will ask administration officials to explain the NSA program and its legal justifications in closed hearings over the next few months, said Wilson, one of its subcommittee chairmen.

The committee "has begun a process to thoroughly review this program and the FISA law" through a series of yet-to-be-scheduled briefings and exchanges of letters that will unfold as part of the panel's "regular order," Wilson said in an interview in her office. "This is the way we do oversight," she said, adding that she has discussed the matter with the committee chairman, Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.).

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