Lawmakers Call for Hearings
Friday, May 12, 2006
A report on extensive government collection of Americans' telephone data roiled Congress yesterday, with many Republicans rallying to the president's defense while one key GOP chairman and many Democrats called for hearings, new restrictions and the possible subpoenaing of telephone company executives.
The report, published in USA Today, heaped fuel on an already simmering debate over privacy rights versus anti-terrorism tactics. It threatened to complicate White House efforts to win Senate confirmation of Air Force Gen. Michael V. Hayden as CIA director.
"I believe we are on our way to a major constitutional confrontation on Fourth Amendment guarantees of unreasonable search and seizure," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), a member of the Intelligence and Judiciary panels. "I think this is also going to present a growing impediment to the confirmation of General Hayden, and that is very regretted."
Several of her colleagues predicted that Hayden will be confirmed, but activists in both parties said the politics of aggressive surveillance are uncertain and possibly dangerous.
The report and initial reactions opened up a division in Republican ranks.
"The first move by the committee will be to ask the [phone] companies to come in," Senate Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) told his colleagues yesterday. "I am prepared to consider subpoenas" if executives do not appear voluntarily. Specter, who is Congress's most outspoken GOP critic of warrantless wiretaps of Americans, also said he would like to bring Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales back to his panel for questions, "if it would do any good."
"I am determined to get to the bottom of all this," Specter said.
USA Today disclosed yesterday that the Bush administration has secretly been collecting the telephone records of millions of American households and businesses without court authority, assembling the records in vast electronic databases and attempting to sift them for clues about terrorist threats. More than 200 million U.S. telephone accounts and more than a trillion telephone calls made since late 2001 are included in the database, but USA Today reported that it does not include the contents of the conversations.
Specter and others have said officials including Gonzales have given insufficient explanations of why anti-terrorism wiretaps cannot be carried out through warrants granted by a secret intelligence court.
Specter appeared to be on a collision course with Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), who strongly defended President Bush's surveillance policies. "We'll discuss whether or not hearings are necessary," Frist told reporters. But Specter spokesman Bill Reynolds said the chairman ultimately decides which hearings are held.
The USA Today report carried an extra punch on Capitol Hill because it coincided with two related matters: the Hayden confirmation effort and Wednesday night's news that the Justice Department has closed an inquiry into its own lawyers' role in the warrantless wiretaps because investigators could not obtain the security clearances they needed from the administration.
Reps. Jane Harman (Calif.) and John Conyers Jr. (Mich.) -- the senior Democrats on the Intelligence and Judiciary committees respectively -- filed a bill to make clear "that any attempt to listen in on Americans or collect telephone or e-mail records must be conducted in accordance with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978." That law established the secret court to hear requests for warrants to wiretap Americans.