Specter's NSA Plan Hits Snag

Steven G. Bradbury, an acting assistant attorney general, testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee about the NSA's warrantless spying program.
Steven G. Bradbury, an acting assistant attorney general, testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee about the NSA's warrantless spying program. (By Carol T. Powers -- Bloomberg News)
By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 4, 2006

A White House-endorsed plan to formally legalize the National Security Agency's warrantless surveillance program ran into more political problems yesterday in the Senate, as Democrats successfully maneuvered to block a committee vote on the proposal.

In addition, three of the committee's leading Democrats announced that they would block the confirmation of a senior Justice Department official in protest of a recent move by President Bush. The president effectively stopped a probe into the NSA program by denying security clearances to Justice Department investigators.

The developments spell further difficulties for Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), whose surveillance proposal has earned the endorsement of Bush and Vice President Cheney but has run into fierce opposition from Senate Democrats and a competing proposal from House Republicans.

Specter said in an interview late yesterday that, while he will continue to seek compromise with critics, he is confident the bill will proceed with or without Democratic support.

"As chairman I can set the agenda, and it's going to be on the top of the agenda," Specter said. "I would be sorry to see a party-line vote on it, but that's where it's headed . . . We have enough votes to get it out of committee . . . and we might have enough votes to get it passed."

Specter also said that he believes much of the Democratic opposition to his proposal stems in part from Bush's faltering popularity. "There's a real opposition to the president today which you see everywhere, and it manifests itself here. . . . There's an attitude that if the president's in favor of it, there must be something wrong with it."

The eavesdropping program, approved by Bush in 2001 but not revealed publicly until news reports in December 2005, allows the NSA to intercept telephone calls and e-mails between the United States and overseas without court approval in cases where one party is suspected of links to terrorism. Many Democrats and some Republicans have criticized the program as illegal.

The NSA bill -- announced by Specter last month -- would allow, but not require, the administration to submit the surveillance program to a secret intelligence court for review of its legality. Democrats and other critics say it would actually give the government greater powers to spy on Americans without court oversight.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) called the proposal "worse than no bill at all," arguing that it would weaken current surveillance law and would "allow the president to exercise unchecked authority."

Specter was successful in getting his proposed language adopted as a bill by voice vote during a committee meeting yesterday, but Democrats thwarted his desire for a full vote by making speeches until there was no longer a quorum, officials said. Specter was also rebuffed in his attempt to reconvene the meeting in another room, officials said.

In a related matter, Democratic Sens. Richard J. Durbin (Ill.), Russell Feingold (Wis.) and Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.) wrote a letter to Bush promising to block the confirmation of Steven G. Bradbury, who serves as the acting head of the Justice Department's office of legal counsel. Bush blocked an investigation that would have focused on the role played by that office in approving the NSA spying program.

The senators argued that it would be "inappropriate" to confirm Bradbury as head of that office until he is "cleared of wrongdoing," and they demanded that Bush grant the security clearances necessary to resume the investigation.

The move marks the latest clash between the department and some Democratic senators. Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales and other Justice officials have complained in recent weeks about holds placed by Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) on the nominations of two other acting senior officials because of disputes over information that Levin has demanded.

Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said it is unfair to target Bradbury because he was not at the department when the NSA program began, and he added that Levin is obstructing efforts "to ensure the safety and security of the country."

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