WASHINGTON -- Lawmakers of both parties called yesterday for Congress to consider whether new restrictions are needed on government surveillance of communications involving people in the United States.
Congress is deeply divided over whether the Bush administration acted illegally in carrying out warrantless domestic eavesdropping in hopes of detecting terrorist plots. Several influential lawmakers said Congress should begin playing a larger role in determining how the surveillance should be run.
"I know of no member in Congress, frankly, who if the administration came and said, 'Here's why we need this capability,' that they wouldn't get it," Sen. John McCain, who has questioned the legality of the eavesdropping, told Fox News Sunday.
"Let's have the administration come to Congress. I think they will get that authority, whatever is reasonable and needed, and increased abilities to monitor communications are clearly in order," the Arizona Republican said.
Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, said: "If the president came to us and said, 'There are changes in technology, changes in the threat to America, we need to change and modify the law,' you bet he would have a Congress ready to work with him," Durbin said.
On ABC's This Week, Sen. John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, attacked Karl Rove for his remarks to Republican activists last week, in which the president's top political adviser said that "some important Democrats clearly disagree" with the Bush administration's belief that "it is in our national security interest" to know if terrorism suspects are communicating with individuals in the United States.
"What [Rove is] trying to pretend is somehow Democrats don't want to eavesdrop appropriately to protect the country. That's a lie," Kerry said. "We're prepared to eavesdrop wherever and whenever necessary in order to make America safer."
If the administration has determined that the setup is unworkable, Kerry said, "then come to us and tell us how you can do it. ... There is a way to protect the Constitution and not go off on your own and violate it."
Rep. Jane Harman of California, the top Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, told This Week that she believes the administration broke the law by failing to fully brief the intelligence panels on the secret National Security Agency program.
But Rep. Peter Hoekstra, a Michigan Republican and chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said he had been invited in the past to ask questions about the program and consider whether it was legal.
"The problem we have right now is that we have a whole bunch of Democrats who were for this program before they were against it," Hoekstra said. "And the only thing that has changed is that the story was illegally, in a damaging way, leaked to The New York Times."
White House press secretary Scott McClellan issued a written response to the Democrats' comments, accusing them of engaging "in misleading and outlandish charges about this vital tool that helps us do exactly what the 9/11 Commission said we needed to do -- connect the dots."
Paul Richter writes for the Los Angeles Times.