updated 9/6/2006 6:35:38 PM ET 2006-09-06T22:35:38

The Bush administration gave guarded support to several terrorist surveillance bills Wednesday as Congress took up the sensitive issue of how to give legal backing to the president’s warrantless wiretapping.

Steven Bradbury, acting assistant attorney general, told a House Judiciary subcommittee that legislation backed by the House GOP leadership showed promise and that the president had expressed support for a measure from Sen. Arlen Specter, the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman.

But Bradbury and the National Security Agency’s general counsel, Robert Deitz, also said the NSA’s wiretapping program was proper and necessary, and that tampering with it could jeopardize national security.

Republican leaders have made the legislation a top item before Congress leaves at the end of this month for the fall elections. But GOP lawmakers are divided on how best to put into law the program without trampling on personal rights. Meanwhile, Democratic opposition has made a quick resolution unlikely.

Wednesday’s hearing focused on the leading House bill, sponsored by Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M. It would streamline the 1978 law that set up a secret federal court to authorize security-related eavesdropping.

The measure would extend from the current three days to five days the time allowed for emergency surveillance before a warrant application is submitted and approved by that court.

4 bills may be weighed Thursday
On Thursday, the Senate Judiciary Committee planned to consider as many as four bills. One, by Specter, R-Pa., was developed after negotiations with the administration.

Bradbury said that “we see promise” in the Wilson bill because it recognizes that “in times of armed conflict involving an exigent terrorist threat, the president may need to act with agility and dispatch to protect the nation.”

But he took issue with a requirement in the bill that the president wait for an attack before initiating an electronic surveillance program. “The president cannot and should not wait for thousands of Americans to die before initiating vital intelligence collection,” Bradbury said.

The surveillance program, created after the Sept. 11 attacks, monitors the international calls and e-mails between people overseas who are suspected of involvement in terrorism and people on American soil. The program was disclosed in news reports last December.

Judge’s ruling raises urgency
The need for Congress to give legal status to the program gained a sense of urgency last month when a federal judge in Detroit ruled that it violated rights to free speech and privacy as well as constitutional separation of powers.

The administration has appealed that ruling contending that the president, as commander in chief, is justified in taking action to protect the nation during times of war.

Democrats say the administration is using terrorism to expand presidential powers and reduce the authority of the courts and Congress to oversee his actions. “We’re just cloaking the activity with a veil of legitimacy,” said Rep. Robert Scott, D-Va.

One Democratic alternative, sponsored by Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif., the top Democrat on the intelligence committee, makes clear that surveillance must be conducted under the 1978 law but changes procedures to speed up the process.

Specter’s bill would submit the program to the special court for a one-time constitutional review; expand the time for emergency warrants from three to seven days; and require the attorney general to inform Congress’s intelligence committees on the program’s activities every six months.

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