House GOP Leaders Fight Wiretapping Limits

By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 13, 2006

House leaders moved yesterday to temper many of the controls that a bill headed toward rapid passage would have imposed on the Bush administration's program for wiretapping terrorism suspects without court approval.

The bill, set for Judiciary Committee consideration today, would have forced the administration to seek a warrant for surveillance within 60 days and bolstered consultations with Congress on the program. But last-minute changes pushed by senior Republicans may allow warrantless surveillance to largely continue without those controls. Instead, House Republican leaders brought their bill in line with legislation agreed to by the White House and the Senate, which would allow but not require the administration to submit the program to a secret court for a constitutional review.

Republican leaders, in the midst of an increasingly angry attack on Democrats over defense matters, made it clear that they will not challenge President Bush's authority in matters of national security as they challenge their opponents' commitment to fighting terrorism.

"I do not think it is our intent to . . . 'rein in' the NSA," said House Majority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio).

The move put House GOP leaders at odds with some Republican moderates and civil libertarians in the House and the Senate, who have pledged to assert Congress's authority over the wiretapping program. The legislation's chief author, Rep. Heather A. Wilson (R-N.M.), made it clear that she will stand by the original bill's system of checks when the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence takes it up tomorrow.

Wilson's bill would extend from the current three days to five days the time allowed for emergency surveillance before a warrant has to be submitted and approved by the secret federal court established under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (FISA). Warrantless surveillance would have to halt after 60 days unless the president came to Congress to justify further eavesdropping. And members of Congress would have to be briefed on the groups under surveillance.

"We need to use our intelligence tools to listen to our enemies," she said. "We also need to make sure checks are in place to prevent those tools from being used inappropriately against Americans. The best way to do that is to make sure we have divided government."

Divisions have also surfaced in the Senate, where half a dozen Republicans have publicly questioned the agreement between Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and the White House that House leaders pushed yesterday.

Democrats and civil liberties groups say neither the Wilson nor the Specter bill effectively limits the reach of the NSA's wiretapping program. Under the Wilson bill, a terrorist attack anywhere in the world would suspend for 45 days many of the controls on the program, and surveillance of international calls could continue without a warrant, as long as an American is not the target, Democrats say. Even before the leadership's changes, House Judiciary Committee aides had expected a bipartisan challenge to Wilson's bill today.

"There are some us who are uncomfortable here, some Republicans," said Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), a Judiciary Committee member.

A competing measure, written by Flake and Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), another committee member, would effectively end warrantless surveillance by insisting that a FISA court warrant remain the exclusive means to conduct domestic surveillance. It would also clarify that Congress's authorization of the use of force after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks was in no way meant to authorize warrantless wiretapping, and it would require disclosure to Congress of information on all Americans subjected to the surveillance.

Nevertheless, administration officials have criticized aspects of Wilson's House bill, especially the provision that would suspend controls only in the aftermath of a terrorist attack.

"The president cannot and should not wait for thousands of Americans to die before initiating vital intelligence collection," acting Assistant Attorney General Steven G. Bradbury told the House Judiciary Committee last week.

Wilson was incredulous. "It is surprising to me that, five years after 9/11, the administration comes to Capitol Hill to say they have insufficient legal authorities necessary to keep this country safe," she said.

But House GOP leaders pushed the committee to fall in line.

"Mr. Boehner's purpose right now is to hold on to GOP seats," Schiff said yesterday, after the Judiciary Committee's first classified briefing on the NSA program since it was revealed in December. "It's the security of Republican seats, not the security of the country, that's driving the majority leader.

The heated words came from both sides.

Boehner used a meeting with reporters yesterday to push his attacks on Democrats over the wiretapping issue and the president's efforts to receive congressional approval for his military tribunals.

"I listen to my Democrat friends, and I wonder if they're more interested in protecting terrorists than in protecting the American people," Boehner said.

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