Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Cheney: "we have all the legal authority we need"

Cheney resists changing spy program

By Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Vice President Dick Cheney on Tuesday resisted bipartisan appeals for changes in a hotly disputed warrantless eavesdropping program, saying he believed "we have all the legal authority we need."

Democrats and some Republicans have urged the Bush administration to work with Congress to revise a law already on the books in order to end questions about whether the spy program, initiated after the September 11, 2001 attacks, was constitutional.

In an interview on PBS' "Newshour," Cheney was asked whether President Bush was willing to work with Congress to settle some of the legal questions about the spy program.

"We believe ... that we have all the legal authority we need," Cheney said.

He said Bush had indicated he was willing to listen to ideas from Congress and that members of Congress certainly have the right to suggest changes.

"We'd have to make a decision, as the administration, whether or not we think it would help and would enhance our capabilities," he said.

A House Republican whose subcommittee oversees the National Security Agency, which conducted the eavesdropping, broke ranks with the White House and called for a full congressional inquiry into the program, The New York Times reported.

Rep. Heather Wilson of New Mexico, chairwoman of a House Intelligence subcommittee, said in an interview with the paper that she had "serious concerns" about the surveillance program.

By withholding information about its operations from many lawmakers, she said, the administration has deepened her apprehension about whom the agency is monitoring and why.

Wilson is the first Republican on either the House or Senate intelligence committees to call for a full congressional investigation into the program.

The NSA program was exposed in December by The New York Times. It monitors telephone calls and e-mail exchanges between people in the United States and abroad when one party is suspected of links to al Qaeda.

A 1978 law, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, makes it illegal to spy on U.S. citizens in the United States without the approval of a special security court.

Some senators have suggested changes in the law to bring it up to date with today's fast-paced world of high-speed communications like cell phones and e-mail.


At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Monday Democrats and some Republicans challenged the assertion that Bush had the authority to act under both the Constitution and a congressional resolution that authorized the use of U.S. force against al Qaeda three days after the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington.

Cheney said he was concerned that additional legislation on the issue would disclose the program in a way that would possibly damage it.

"I think it's important for us if we're going to proceed legislatively to keep in mind that there's a price to be paid for that and it might well in fact do irreparable damage to our capacity to collect this information," he said.

Cheney also said some congressional critics were changing their tune on the program now that it was public. When they were briefed privately on the classified program, they had been supportive, he said.

"I presided over most of those briefings, there was no great concern expressed that somehow we needed to come get additional legislative authority," he said.