Panel on Eavesdropping Is Briefed by White House

By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 10, 2006

The new seven-senator intelligence subcommittee created to review the Bush administration's domestic surveillance program had its first White House briefing yesterday and is scheduled to visit the National Security Agency's headquarters Monday to gather additional information, according to congressional and administration officials.

Those who participated in the briefing, which lasted more than two hours, were close-mouthed about the details. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, released a statement yesterday evening describing the meeting as "extremely productive and educational for the members" of what he called the subcommittee on the oversight of the terrorist surveillance program.

"It's too . . . sensitive to talk about" was the only message from the panel's vice chairman, Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), as passed on by his press secretary. A White House spokesman said there would be no comment.

The surveillance program, which became public in December, allows the NSA to monitor phone calls and e-mails between the United States and abroad that involve, at least on one end, terrorists or persons associated with them.

Concerns have been raised over the past two months about the legality of such monitoring without a warrant from the secret court set up under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The subcommittee was created as part of a plan by Roberts to head off calls for an investigation of the NSA monitoring by the full intelligence committee.

Both House and Senate panels have been negotiating with the White House over what kind of inquiry Congress will be able to make into the controversial program, and what rules will govern it.

Members of the Senate subcommittee -- which, along with Roberts and Rockefeller, includes Republicans Mike DeWine (Ohio), Orrin G. Hatch (Utah) and Christopher S. Bond (Mo.) and Democrats Carl M. Levin (Mich.) and Dianne Feinstein (Calif.) -- will not be able to share what they learn with the other eight members of the intelligence panel, according to rules the White House has proposed.

The subcommittee visit to the NSA's Fort Meade headquarters will come a little more than a week after Rockefeller went there on his own to get answers to 450 questions he had sent earlier to the agency. Rockefeller is one of the few lawmakers who have been briefed on the NSA program over the past three years. The program has troubled the senator since his first briefing in 2003, when he sent a classified letter about his doubts to Vice President Cheney.

After spending almost seven hours last week getting answers from more than a dozen NSA lawyers, policymakers and technicians, Rockefeller said in a Tuesday interview that he learned "much, much more" in that session than in briefings at the White House, where the sessions "were flip-chart jobs and not very impressive."

Some questions that Rockefeller said he hopes the subcommittee will cover are "How many phone calls are listened to and e-mails read without court warrants; how many Americans are a party to these calls and e-mails; why this electronic surveillance without a warrant is necessary; and the extent to which eavesdropping being undertaken in the U.S. for the past 4 1/2 years has actually resulted in the arrest and prosecution of terrorists."

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