Senators focus on domestic spying


WASHINGTON -- Senators pressed ahead yesterday with proposals to authorize President Bush's domestic spying program, as Senate Intelligence Committee members debated whether to investigate the surveillance activities.

The Senate Intelligence Committee will meet today and is expected to vote on a Democratic proposal to investigate the National Security Agency program, which the president has said is intercepting communications between terrorist suspects and people in the United States.

A vote of eight of the committee's 16 members is needed to initiate an investigation, and the committee's seven Democrats support it. Most Republicans are opposed, but Sen. Olympia J. Snowe of Maine and Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska have said that they have not made up their minds.

Last week, the administration briefed members of the Senate and House intelligence committees on the program for the first time. Snowe and others have said those sessions were inadequate.

Hagel has not met with or talked to administration officials about his vote, said his spokesman, Mike Buttry. Hagel has previously said he would support an Intelligence Committee investigation if it was not "punitive" in intent.

Sens. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, and Mike DeWine, an Ohio Republican, worked on competing proposals to legalize the program. DeWine favors exempting it from federal court oversight, and Specter is urging 45-day exemptions.

Under the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the NSA is not allowed to collect intelligence inside the United States unless it receives a warrant from a secret-surveillance court staffed by federal judges. The FISA court rules are far more lenient than those of criminal courts, permitting authorities to seek warrants retroactively.

The administration has said that the president's decision more than five years ago not to seek FISA warrants before monitoring international telephone calls and e-mails of Americans and noncitizens in the United States with suspected links to terrorists was part of his inherent powers as commander in chief and was implicitly authorized when Congress voted in September 2001 to authorize military action against al-Qaida.

The FISA process is too cumbersome for the age of e-mail and cellular phones, they have said.

Republican and Democratic lawmakers have said they find the administration's legal rationale unconvincing and are considering whether to legalize the program through some form of legislation.

DeWine's proposal, which has gained support among Republicans, would exempt the program from the FISA warrant process. It would also create two subcommittees of the Senate and House intelligence committees to be fully briefed on the program and exercise oversight. The subcommittees would have six members each, three Democrats and three Republicans.

Specter, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, led the first congressional hearing on the issue last week. He did not provide details of his proposal.

Maura Reynolds writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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