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Senate panel rejects bid for NSA inquiry

Reuters / David Morgan | March 8 2006

Senate Republicans on Tuesday agreed to expand oversight of President George W. Bush's domestic spying program but rejected Democratic pressure for a broad inquiry into eavesdropping on U.S. citizens.

Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, Republican chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said the committee voted to create a new seven-member subcommittee that would scrutinize the eavesdropping under a plan approved by the White House.

The Bush administration was criticized by rights groups, Democrats and some Republicans for the surveillance program. It started after the September 11 attacks and allowed the National Security Agency to eavesdrop without a warrant on Americans' international phone and e-mail communications while in pursuit of al Qaeda.

In addition, the White House has begun discussions with several Republican lawmakers on legislative language that could further regulate the program.

"I believe the president is prepared to sign a bill once the Congress does work its will," Roberts told reporters after a closed-door committee meeting.

"When it comes to national security, I prefer accommodation over confrontation whenever possible. We should fight the enemy. We should not fight each other."

Four Senate Republicans, all critics of the program, proposed a plan that would authorize the National Security Agency to eavesdrop without a warrant for 45 days but require the White House to justify every decision to continue beyond that timeframe.

The legislative proposal, titled the Terrorist Surveillance Act of 2006, also would force the eavesdropping program to cease after five years unless renewed by Congress.

Sen. Mike DeWine of Ohio, one of the four Republicans pressing for legislation, said the proposal was backed by Roberts and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee and accepted "in broad concept" by the White House.

DEMOCRATIC COMPLAINTS

But the Republican-controlled intelligence panel voted down a Democratic proposal for a complete investigation into the

surveillance by the National Security Agency by the full 15-member intelligence committee. Democrats complained that they had been shut out of discussions with the White House that led to the agreement.

"The committee, to put it bluntly, is basically under the control of the White House through its chairman," said a visibly frustrated Sen. John Rockefeller of West Virginia, ranking Democrat on the intelligence committee.

Republicans rejected suggestions that the intelligence panel was retreating from its oversight duties on the NSA program. "The scope of the subcommittee's purview will be broad, wide, deep," said Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska.

The committee's decision came five days after the House of Representatives Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence agreed on a new plan to pursue oversight of the NSA program through a subcommittee that has not yet been identified.

The White House has not agreed to the new House oversight plan. Up to now, White House officials have allowed full details of the NSA program to be shared only with eight members of Congress, including the Republican chairmen and ranking Democrats of the intelligence panels in both House and Senate.

The House agreement appeared to undermine efforts by Democrats and some Republicans to seek an inquiry by the full House intelligence committee.

The White House contends that Bush has the constitutional authority to order the eavesdropping as commander-in-chief, as well as congressional approval in the form of an authorization for use of military force against al Qaeda that lawmakers enacted on September 14, 2001.

Democrats and some Republicans contend the authorization was not meant to cover warrantless domestic spying and say the NSA program may violate the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which requires the government to obtain warrants for all electronic eavesdropping inside the United States.

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