Surveillance Bill Meets Resistance in Senate
Friday, July 21, 2006
A Senate surveillance bill personally negotiated by President Bush and Vice President Cheney ran into immediate trouble this week, as Democrats and other critics attacked the proposal while key GOP leaders in the House endorsed a different bill on the same topic.
The Senate legislation, drafted during negotiations between the White House and Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), would allow the administration to submit the National Security Agency's warrantless surveillance program to a secret intelligence court for review of its legality.
The proposal was billed as a rare and noteworthy compromise by the administration when unveiled last week. But the legislation quickly came under attack from Democrats and many national security experts, who said it would actually give the government greater powers to spy on Americans without court oversight.
A competing bill introduced by Rep. Heather A. Wilson (R-N.M.) was endorsed this week by two key House GOP leaders: Peter Hoekstra (Mich.), the intelligence committee chairman, and F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (Wis.), head of the Judiciary Committee.
Specter, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, canceled a markup session for his proposal that had been scheduled for yesterday. He announced instead plans instead for a full committee hearing Wednesday on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), the 1978 statute at the center of the debate.
The developments add to the uncertainty surrounding the eavesdropping program, which allows the NSA to intercept telephone calls and e-mails between the United States and locations overseas without court approval if one of the parties is suspected of links to terrorism.
The program -- secretly ordered by Bush after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks but not revealed publicly until media reports in December -- has been the focus of fierce congressional debate. The Justice Department has spent much of its time fending off a flurry of legal challenges to the program in the courts, including a class-action lawsuit that was allowed to proceed yesterday by a federal judge in California.
Specter's proposal would, among other things, allow the transfer of all pending lawsuits to a secret FISA appeals court that could throw the cases out for "any reason." The bill would also allow -- but not require -- the administration to seek legal approval for the NSA program from another secret court that administers FISA.
The legislation also would lengthen the amount of time the government could spy on alleged terrorism suspects before receiving warrants, and would explicitly affirm the president's "constitutional authority" to conduct spying programs on his own.
Specter defended the proposal during a committee hearing on Tuesday, calling the agreement with Bush "a major breakthrough" that included necessary but acceptable compromises. He also argued that the language acknowledging Bush's legal authority has no real impact but was insisted on by White House negotiators.
"I do believe that it would be a significant precedent if we work this out and the president fulfills a commitment to refer to FISA," Specter said.
But critics say the proposal would effectively gut the FISA law and give the government too much leeway in clandestine surveillance. Opponents also say the bill would allow the FISA court to approve surveillance programs as a whole, rather than reviewing warrants for specific cases as it does now.
Other GOP proposals -- including bills proposed by Wilson and Sen. Mike DeWine (Ohio) -- are opposed by Democrats and civil liberties groups because they formally authorize the NSA program. But the scope of the Wilson bill, for example, is more limited than Specter's, and requires the executive branch to brief all members of the House and Senate intelligence committees.
Rep. Jane Harman (Calif.), ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee, said she opposes all the GOP's proposals dealing with the NSA issue, calling them "solutions in search of a problem."
Staff writers Charles Babington and Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.