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White House agrees to tell more lawmakers about NSA program

WASHINGTON—In a move that could help defuse a potentially contentious confirmation hearing for CIA director, the White House agreed Tuesday to provide details of its warrantless wiretapping and phone-record collection program to all members of the Senate and House Intelligence Committees.

Until Tuesday, the White House had insisted on keeping details of the program secret from all but a handful of lawmakers. A closed-door classified briefing for the Senate committee is scheduled for Wednesday, a day before the committee hears testimony from Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden, President Bush's nominee for director of the CIA.

"It's something we should have done five years ago ... at the inception of the program," said Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., the chairman of the intelligence committee. "We have reached an accommodation (with the White House). I think it's a good accommodation."

Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich., the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said a time hadn't been set to brief the 21 members of his panel.

Both Roberts and Hoekstra said they hoped the expanded access to information would stop the partisan sniping over how to conduct congressional oversight of the program.

Democrats welcomed the decision and said it likely would take the edge off of the public portion of Hayden's confirmation hearing Thursday.

"I suspect that there is concern that if the committee doesn't really know the details of the NSA program, the Hayden nomination is in jeopardy," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., who has supported Hayden for the CIA post. "I'm delighted to hear this. It is the right thing to do."

At issue is Bush's decision shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to authorize the super-secret National Security Agency to eavesdrop on conversations in and out of the United States involving callers suspected of having al-Qaida ties. Though the calls involved at least one party within the United States, Bush's authorization permitted eavesdropping without court-approved warrants.

The New York Times revealed the existence of the program in December, causing an outcry from civil libertarians and attempts to curtail the program in Congress.

Last week, USA Today reported that the NSA also was collecting domestic telephone records from phone companies to trace when, where and to whom phone calls were placed. Since then, two of the companies, Verizon and BellSouth, have denied turning customer phone data over to the NSA.

National security adviser Stephen Hadley said Sunday that the USA Today story described "business records that have been held by the courts not to be protected by a right of privacy."

"There are a variety of ways in which those records lawfully can be provided to the government," Hadley said.

Bush reiterated Tuesday that "we do not listen to domestic phone calls without court approval."

Hayden had been the head of the NSA when the eavesdropping and data collection programs started. Democrats and Republicans immediately vowed to confront him with questions about the legality and the breadth of the wiretaps and the record-gathering during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee.

But under a deal that Roberts struck with the White House in March, only seven of the Senate committee's 15 members have been given details of the NSA program. They visited the NSA and gathered in a secure room in the White House where they were briefed by Hayden, Vice President Dick Cheney, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and John Negroponte, the director of national intelligence.

With the Hayden hearings looming, Roberts said it would have been especially awkward for some committee members to have access to classified information and not others.

"Why bifurcate a committee—seven being briefed and eight not—and then ask questions of somebody who has been nominated for the CIA," he said. "I don't see how that works."

Still, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., a member of the committee, said he intended to press Hayden on aspects of the program that are already public.

"It's not going to prevent an effort to explore the program in public," he said.

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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