White House Working to Avoid Wiretap Probe
Monday, February 20, 2006
At two key moments in recent days, White House officials contacted congressional leaders just ahead of intelligence committee meetings that could have stirred demands for a deeper review of the administration's warrantless-surveillance program, according to House and Senate sources.
In both cases, the administration was spared the outcome it most feared, and it won praise in some circles for showing more openness to congressional oversight.
But the actions have angered some lawmakers who think the administration's purported concessions mean little. Some Republicans said that the White House came closer to suffering a big setback than is widely known, and that President Bush must be more forthcoming about the eavesdropping program to retain Congress's good will.
The first White House scramble came on Feb. 8, before the House intelligence committee began a closed briefing on the program, which Bush began in late 2001 but which was disclosed only recently. The program allows the National Security Agency to monitor communications involving a person in the United States and one outside, provided one is a possible terrorism suspect. The administration says the program is exempt from the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which provides for domestic surveillance warrants. Many lawmakers and legal scholars disagree.
The House hearing came a day after a prominent Republican member called for an inquiry into the wiretapping program, and two days after Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales had angered some senators by defending it without providing details. On Feb. 8, House members were grumbling that the administration apparently planned to have Gonzales, joined by former NSA director Michael V. Hayden, provide the same limited briefing to the House intelligence committee.
But the White House unexpectedly announced that Gonzales and Hayden would give the 21-member committee more insight into the program's "procedural aspects." The briefing placated many members. When committee leaders later said the panel will look further into the program, they made clear it will be a controlled process rather than the freewheeling investigation some Democrats want.
The second White House flurry occurred last Thursday, as the Senate intelligence committee readied for a showdown over a motion by top Democrat John D. Rockefeller IV (W.Va.) to start a broad inquiry into the surveillance program. White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. -- who had visited the Capitol two days earlier with Vice President Cheney to lobby Republicans on the program -- spoke by phone with Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine), according to Senate sources briefed on the call.
Snowe earlier had expressed concerns about the program's legality and civil liberties safeguards, but Card was adamant about restricting congressional oversight and control, said the sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing office policies. Snowe seemed taken aback by Card's intransigence, and the call amounted to "a net step backward" for the White House, said a source outside Snowe's office.
Snowe contacted fellow committee Republican Chuck Hagel (Neb.), who also had voiced concerns about the program. They arranged a three-way phone conversation with Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.).
Until then, Roberts apparently thought he had the votes to defeat Rockefeller's motion in the committee, which Republicans control nine to seven, the sources said. But Snowe and Hagel told the chairman that if he called up the motion, they would support it, assuring its passage, the sources said.
When the closed meeting began, Roberts averted a vote on Rockefeller's motion by arranging for a party-line vote to adjourn until March 7. The move infuriated Rockefeller, who told reporters, "The White House has applied heavy pressure in recent weeks to prevent the committee from doing its job."
Hagel and Snowe declined interview requests after the meeting, but sources close to them say they bridle at suggestions that they buckled under administration heat. The White House must engage "in good-faith negotiations" with Congress, Snowe said in a statement.
Roberts, reacting to Hagel and Snowe's actions, told the New York Times on Friday that he now supports bringing the NSA program under FISA's jurisdiction in some manner, a stand that could put him at odds with the administration. The White House has praised a plan by Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio) to draft legislation that would exempt the NSA program from FISA, while providing for congressional oversight.
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said that Bush "is open to ideas from Congress regarding legislation, and we've committed to working with Congress on a bill."