WASHINGTON—In an unusually pointed letter, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, accused Vice President Dick Cheney of interfering with his panel's attempts to examine the National Security Agency's use of private phone records.
Specter, in a three-page letter Wednesday to the vice president, said Cheney not only lobbied members of his committee behind Specter's back, but also blocked telephone companies from testifying before the Judiciary Committee about any relationship they may have with the NSA.
"I was surprised, to say the least, that you sought to influence, really determine, the action of the committee without calling me first," Specter said in the letter.
The letter came one day after Specter announced that he wouldn't call phone company executives to testify about their NSA dealings. Specter said then that Cheney had informed the committee that the phone companies would not testify about classified information—a development that Specter said "was unsatisfactory to me."
In a delicious bit of detail that underscores the intimacy of this high-powered relationship, Specter complained in his letter that Cheney did not even raise the subject during Tuesday's closed-door Senate Republican policy lunch, which Specter and the vice president both attended.
"I walked directly in front of you on at least two occasions en route from the buffet to my table," Specter wrote. (Tuna salad and a hardboiled egg on the first trip; cantaloupe on the second.)
In an interview, Specter said he knew by the time of the lunch that Cheney had already lobbied Republicans to block any hearing with the phone companies. Asked if he considered confronting the vice president, Specter said: "He's calling up Republican members; it's up to him to talk to me."
Specter's irritation with the administration has been building ever since President Bush confirmed last December that the NSA was secretly, and without warrants, tapping into communications between U.S. citizens suspected of being al-Qaida loyalists and people abroad.
Specter has complained that administration officials, particularly Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, have ignored or sidestepped his requests for information.
In the letter, Specter said, "there is no doubt the NSA (surveillance) program violates the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act," which requires a secret federal court to issue warrants for domestic wiretaps in national security cases. He complained that no administration official has responded to his proposed legislation that a special court assigned to intelligence matters determine whether the program is constitutional.
"I have not been able to get any response, including a `no,'" he wrote.
In a statement, Jennifer Mayfield, a spokeswoman for the vice president, said Cheney "has not had an opportunity to study the letter this afternoon."
Mayfield said Cheney will "listen to ideas of legislators," but noted, "We do not need any legislation to carry out the terrorist-surveillance program."
Specter's decision Tuesday to not call telephone company executives to testify about their NSA dealings had prompted an outcry from Democrats.
Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., told Specter Tuesday that the leadership Specter had displayed through May "has ended in a June swoon today. You have given away the store."
Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the committee's ranking Democrat, said: "Why don't we just recess for the rest of the year, pass a resolution which a Republican-controlled Congress could easily pass, and just simply say: We'll have no more hearings and Vice President Cheney will just tell the nation what laws we'll have. He'll let us know what laws will be followed and which laws will not be followed."
Specter said he intends to move his NSA legislation out of committee on Thursday, together with companion bills by Sens. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, and Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.
He said he would wait a "reasonable period of time" to see if the administration weighs in in support of his bill before deciding whether to call phone company executives to testify. "Let's see what happens in the course of the next several days to a week," he said.
In his letter, Specter also took issue with a series of executive actions that he said stretch the legal boundaries of executive power. He cited presidential signing statements "where the president seeks to cherry-pick which parts of statute he will follow." He also mentioned the Justice Department's claims that it has the right to prosecute newspaper reporters and the FBI's recent raid of a congressman's office as part of a bribery investigation.
"All of this occurring in the context where the administration is continuing warrantless wiretaps in violation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and is preventing the Senate Judiciary Committee from carrying out it constitutional responsibility for congressional oversight on constitutional issues," Specter wrote.
(Knight Ridder correspondent William Douglas contributed to this report.)
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): ARLEN SPECTER, DICK CHENEY
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