Monday, January 16, 2006

Specter says no 'blank check' for Bush on spying

Specter says no 'blank check' for Bush on spying

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee promised a thorough investigation on Sunday into President George W. Bush's secret domestic eavesdropping program and said there would be no blank check for Bush.

Sen. Arlen Specter, a Republican from Pennsylvania, said Bush in theory could face impeachment charges if found to have violated the law by authorizing the program, but he did not endorse that approach and had heard no serious talk of it.

News of the covert domestic spying program last month sparked an outcry by both Democrats and some members of Bush's Republican party. Many lawmakers and rights groups questioned whether it violates the U.S. Constitution.

The judiciary committee has scheduled hearings on the issue and U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has said he will testify on the administration's legal justification. The operation includes eavesdropping on U.S. phone calls and reading e-mails. The hearings are expected next month.

"We're going to explore it in depth," Specter said on ABC television's "This Week With George Stephanopoulos."

"I don't see any talk about impeachment here," Specter said. "I don't think anybody doubts that the president is making a good faith effort, that he sees a real problem as we all do, and he's acting in a way that he feels he must."

Still, the senator insisted, "we're not going to give him a blank check, and just because we're of the same party doesn't mean we're not going to look at this very closely."


The 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act makes it illegal to spy on U.S. citizens in the United States without the approval of a special, secret court. Bush secretly gave the National Security Agency authority to intercept communications without such approval.

Bush and senior officials have contended that the eavesdropping on Americans suspected of links to terrorism is legal and necessary to help defend the country after September 11.

Gonzales has said the authorization of military force by the U.S. Congress after the September 11 attacks also gave the president the right to conduct the domestic surveillance.

Specter reiterated his view that the vote did not allow domestic spying, although he said presidential war powers under the U.S. Constitution might supersede the law.

Asked if he might be willing to amend the law to accommodate the spying program, Specter did not rule it out. "I'm prepared to listen, but I'd be very dubious," he said.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, a Democrat on the committee, said on CBS' "Face the Nation" that the president's exercise of power must be examined.

She said she does not believe Bush's constitutional powers "allow him to simply avoid the law when he can do it (authorize domestic spying) by following the law."

Bush only acknowledged the program after it was reported by The New York Times, and called its disclosure to the newspaper "a shameful act." The Justice Department has announced an investigation into who disclosed the NSA operation.