WASHINGTON -- The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee said yesterday that he might try to block funding of an NSA domestic eavesdropping program in an effort to force the Bush administration to answer lawmakers' questions about the operation.
In a stern warning to the White House, Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, said he planned to introduce legislation that would cut off funds for the surveillance program, which he described as a threat to civil liberties and a violation of domestic spying laws.
Specter said a funding cutoff would be a last resort. But he warned that if the Bush administration is unwilling to comply with existing laws or help draft new domestic surveillance legislation, the only way for Congress to exercise control over the program might be to deny funding.
Specter offered a funding cutoff measure as an amendment to an emergency war spending bill, but said he did not intend to push for passage. He said the measure could be converted into separate legislation that would provide an opportunity for congressional hearings.
A draft circulated by Specter's office would prohibit the use of funds for domestic electronic surveillance for foreign intelligence purposes "unless Congress is kept fully and currently informed." The proposal would require the administration to brief all members of the House and Senate Intelligence and Judiciary committees.
To date, the White House has restricted such briefings to members of new subcommittees on the intelligence panels.
The domestic surveillance program was launched in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, when President Bush authorized the National Security Agency to eavesdrop - without first obtaining court warrants - on the communications of U.S. residents. The White House has said that the eavesdropping is restricted to calls between U.S. residents and individuals overseas who are suspected of having ties to al-Qaida.