Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Democrats seek special probe of Bush's NSA program

Democrats seek special probe of Bush's NSA program
By David Morgan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Democratic lawmakers have asked President George W. Bush to order a special probe of his domestic spying program, while a Senate Republican readied legislation that would subject the controversial program to judicial review.

In a letter released on Monday, 18 House of Representatives Democrats told Bush a special counsel was necessary because administration officials including Attorney General Alberto Gonzales are too involved in defending the National Security Agency program to provide independent scrutiny.

The inspectors general of the Defense Department and the Justice Department turned down earlier requests from Democrats for independent probes into the program, which the White House acknowledged in December after it was revealed by the New York Times.

Authorized by Bush soon after the September 11 attacks, the program allows the NSA to monitor the international telephone calls and e-mails of U.S. citizens without court warrants while in pursuit of al Qaeda.

Democrats and some Republicans say Bush may have overstepped his constitutional authority and violated the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which requires warrants for all electronic eavesdropping.

Democrats have also charged that Bush violated the National Security Act by allowing complete oversight by only eight members of Congress rather than the full intelligence committees of the House and Senate.

"Unfortunately, a pattern of resistance is emerging from the executive branch agencies implicated by these allegations," said a February 26 letter from Democrats led by Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California, who sits on both the House judiciary and homeland security committees.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the monitoring was tightly focused on international communications involving al Qaeda and had been reviewed by legal officials at the White House, Justice Department and NSA.

"I really don't think there's any basis for a special counsel. And I think the attorney general has spoken about that as well," he said.

The Senate Judiciary Committee, which heard Gonzales' defense of the program on February 6, was to hear testimony from legal experts at four universities and a Washington think tank on Tuesday at its second hearing on the program's legality.

The committee's Republican chairman, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, has urged the White House to submit the program to a review by the secret federal court that approves warrants for electronic surveillance under FISA.

Draft legislation prepared by Specter would require the White House to seek FISA court approval for domestic electronic eavesdropping every 45 days.

The attorney general also would be required to provide the chairmen and ranking members of the House and Senate intelligence panels with information on any electronic surveillance programs at 45-day intervals.

(Additional reporting by Thomas Ferraro)