WASHINGTON -- The chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence rejected yesterday the Bush administration's contention that it had brought the National Security Agency's controversial domestic eavesdropping program into compliance with the law, saying he wants strict new rules requiring the government to obtain a separate warrant every time it places a wiretap on a U.S. resident.
Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, a West Virginia Democrat who recently took over as chairman, also questioned whether the CIA should be running a secret prison network and said agency officers should be forced to follow the same rules as U.S. soldiers when interrogating detainees.
Rockefeller's comments came during an interview in which he was sharply critical of President Bush and said that his committee would be much more aggressive under Democratic control in investigating the administration's espionage activities.
Rockefeller said for the first time that he opposes the Bush administration's new position on its domestic wiretapping program, in which the NSA has eavesdropped on international phone calls of U.S. residents without prior permission from a court.
Last week, the White House abandoned its previous position and said it would no longer allow the NSA to intercept such electronic communications without court approval. But officials, including Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, refused to disclose details on the new guidelines.
Rockefeller said his views on the eavesdropping effort range "from skeptical to dubious."
Rockefeller declined to comment on specific aspects because much of the program remains classified. But he stressed that he opposes any approach allowing the government to use a single warrant to place wiretaps on groups of suspects.
"You can't have, at-large, 'We'll take this slew of wiretaps and just include them under an order,'" Rockefeller said. "They have to be one by one."
Other officials familiar with the wiretapping program have said the new arrangement allows the government to obtain single warrants that cover "bundles" of wiretaps on multiple suspects. The streamlined process is allowed in cases when the targets are not U.S. citizens or permanent residents.
That would give the government wide latitude to spy on those in the United States on work or school visas, as was the case with the Sept. 11 hijackers.
Rockefeller hinted that the Bush administration's new position relies on questionable legal interpretations and that he would push his committee to close loopholes in domestic spying statutes.
The committee recently designated eight staff members to examine the NSA program and to begin drafting new requests for documents that the Bush administration has so far refused to turn over, including the initial presidential order authorizing the domestic surveillance program.
Rockefeller said a coming hearing would focus on whether a secret overseas network of CIA prisons for terrorism suspects is still necessary. Even if the facilities are warranted, he said, CIA interrogators should comply with the Army interrogation field manual that bars most coercive methods, including physical force.
Greg Miller writes for the Los Angeles Times.