WASHINGTON—The White House reversed course Wednesday and agreed to provide the House Intelligence Committee with some information about its secret program to intercept U.S.-foreign communications without court approval.
The decision came as Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, began drafting legislation that would require a special federal court that ordinarily grants warrants for such eavesdropping to determine whether the program is constitutional.
Wednesday's developments illustrated the growing bipartisan pressure from Congress on the Bush administration to address the civil liberties questions raised by its efforts to spy on U.S. residents suspected of terrorist contacts. The White House decision appeared designed to forestall calls for a more aggressive congressional investigation.
The House Intelligence Committee received a closed-door briefing on the program from Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and Gen. Michael Hayden, the deputy director of national intelligence. A similar briefing is scheduled on Thursday for the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Until now, the administration had briefed only the so-called Gang of Eight—the speaker of the House of Representatives, the House Democratic leader, the Senate majority and minority leaders, the Republican chairmen of the House and Senate Intelligence committees and the top Democrats on each committee. Wednesday's briefing was for the full House committee.
It was evident that several Republicans as well as most Democrats were apprehensive about the program when Gonzales testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday about the president's rationale for conducting the program without judicial review, in possible violation of the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
Republican objections gained greater political weight when they were raised Wednesday by Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., a member of the House Intelligence Committee and the chair of its Technical and Tactical Intelligence Subcommittee. Wilson told The New York Times that the eavesdropping program by the National Security Agency needed a full congressional review. In response, the White House agreed to be more open with the intelligence committees.
"The checks and balances in our system of government are very important, and it's those checks and balances that are going on and are being executed now," Wilson said after the White House relented.
As recently as Tuesday night, Vice President Dick Cheney had strongly defended the administration's practice of informing only the eight senior lawmakers.
"You can't take 535 members of Congress and tell them everything and protect the nation's secrets," Cheney said on "The NewsHour" on PBS. He said there have been 70 members of the two congressional intelligence panels during the four years that the secret eavesdropping program has been operating and that sharing the secret with so many lawmakers would have endangered security.
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino denied Wednesday that the decision to talk more about the program with the full membership of both intelligence committees was a change in policy.
"We wanted to give the committee members the best understanding (of the program) possible without violating our principle, the principle being that the full details of the program have been limited to the appropriate members of Congress," she said.
Committee members said the administration was clearly trying to accommodate Congress.
"The ice is thawing," said Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., the ranking Democrat on the intelligence committee. "The administration now sees that it's better to work with Congress on this issue."
In a statement following the meeting, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich., said: "Today's briefing was a positive first step, and I appreciate the White House's willingness to inform more members on aspects of this vital NSA program."
Hoekstra had resisted efforts to conduct a broad investigation. He and Wilson conceded that the committee wasn't given as many details about the program Wednesday as Gang of Eight members got over the past four years.
Under the program, the NSA intercepts suspicious communications between someone overseas and someone in the United States. The administration has refused to say how widespread the program is, how many U.S. residents have been spied upon and what happens to the gathered data.
Specter's plan would require the president to present the eavesdropping program to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance court, a federal tribunal that meets in secret and reviews intelligence requests for spying warrants, and have it rule on whether the program is constitutional or needs to be changed.
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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