WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- Stoking the debate over the National Security Agency's warrantless domestic surveillance program, the directors of two key intelligence agencies argued yesterday in favor of a measure that would give the government new eavesdropping authority.
Democrats criticized the plan, brokered by the White House and Senate Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter, as a "sham proposal" and a "blank check" for the federal government to spy on Americans.
The proposal would authorize a secret court to review the existing NSA program and amend a 1978 law to expand government surveillance authority. It would lift the requirement that U.S. intelligence officers obtain a warrant each time they seek to eavesdrop in the United States.
NSA Director Lt. Gen. Keith B. Alexander, in his first public comments on his agency's program, said the current law ties the NSA's hands by requiring warrants to intercept communications that cross U.S. borders.
"We frequently fail to make the most of one of the greatest advantages we have over our foreign adversaries," said Alexander, referring to access to adversaries' conversations and correspondence through the communications network in this country. He said Specter's bill would fix that.
Alexander was joined by his NSA predecessor, CIA Director Michael V. Hayden, in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on behalf of the Bush administration plan.
Democrats, however, said the proposal goes too far in expanding government authority.
"I could not in good conscience acquiesce in such a sweeping signing away of Americans' liberties," said Vermont Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, the committee's senior Democrat. He said the bill would permit "vast new amounts of warrantless surveillance" by eliminating a requirement that all such surveillance be carried out under a warrant from the secret court.
Each side offered little room for compromise, suggesting the possibility of a partisan stalemate as midterm elections approach. A Republican aide said some lawmakers might prefer to use the bill as a campaign issue, instead of resolving the matter before November.
Separate legislation that would establish military tribunals might also have an impact on Specter's proposal, which could come before the full Senate in September, said the aide, speaking on condition of anonymity. The two measures could be combined into a single package, he added.
At the center of the debate is a 1978 law that requires intelligence officials to obtain a warrant from a secret court to spy on people inside the United States. After the Sept. 11 attacks, President Bush authorized the NSA to conduct domestic spying without a warrant, arguing that presidential war powers permit it.
Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican and a leading critic of the lack of judicial review for the NSA program, acknowledged that he was not completely happy with the compromise he helped arrange.
"I would have preferred to have had some other provisions," he said, such as retaining the requirement that intelligence officers apply for warrants each time they eavesdrop on people inside the country.
Alexander said that would be "impractical," because communications no longer respect geographic barriers. In an age of e-mail and cell phone communications that can originate anywhere in the world, he said, the law should focus on the person targeted by intelligence officials.
He did say, however, that it would be "manageable" to obtain warrants when a person suspected of being involved with terrorists is in the United States.
Alexander called for protections for communications companies that cooperate with the government. It has been widely reported that the NSA has arrangements with companies to obtain records of domestic calls and e-mail, but the Bush administration has not confirmed it.
Democrats were unmoved. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, an author of the 1978 law, called Specter's bill "a sham."
Several Democrats said the proposal would allow the U.S. government to evade existing limits on domestic eavesdropping if the president asserts his war powers.
Democrats said that without prior judicial approval for eavesdropping, there would be no independent check on abuses.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, said she was "strongly opposed" to allowing eavesdropping in the United States without a warrant, adding that it would not be unwieldy to obtain warrants, based on information she has been provided by the administration about the extent of the NSA eavesdropping program.
She said the secret court was ill-equipped to handle a review of the constitutionality and the implementation of the eavesdropping program.
The Specter-Bush administration proposal would redefine a number of terms in the 1978 law, which, critics contend, would broadly allow spying inside the United States without a warrant from the secret court.
Specter urged his colleagues to "face reality."
While critics say that his bill would give the president too much eavesdropping authority, Specter said that since the Sept. 11 attacks, the president has seized that power under his wartime authority anyway.
The only way to determine whether the president is right, Specter said, is to have the secret court decide.