The White House has conditionally agreed to a court review of its controversial eavesdropping program, Senate Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter said Thursday.
Specter said President Bush has agreed to sign legislation that would authorize the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to review the constitutionality of the National Security Agency’s most high-profile monitoring operations.
“You have here a recognition by the president that he does not have a blank check,” the Pennsylvania Republican told his committee.
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said the administration supports Specter’s bill.
“My understanding from the president is that the legislation could be very helpful,” Gonzales told reporters. “It would continue to allow the president to gather up information to protect the country.”
Since shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, the NSA has been eavesdropping on the international calls and e-mails of people inside the United States when terrorism is suspected. Breaking with historic norms, the president authorized the actions without a court warrant.
The disclosure of the program in December sparked outrage among Democrats and civil liberties advocates who said Bush overstepped his authority as president.
Specter said the legislation, which has not yet been made public, was the result of “tortuous” negotiations with the White House since June.
“If the bill is not changed, the president will submit the Terrorist Surveillance Program to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court,” Specter said. “That is the president’s commitment.”
Specter said the court would make a one-time review of the program rather than performing ongoing oversight of it.
An administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity said the bill’s language gives the president the option of submitting the program to the intelligence court, rather than making the review a requirement.
The official said that Bush will submit to the court review as long the bill is not changed, adding that the legislation preserves the right of future presidents to skip the court review.
Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, the committee’s senior Democrat, said Bush could submit the program to the court right now, if he wished. He called the potential legislation “an interesting bargain.”
“He’s saying, if you do every single thing I tell you to do, I’ll do what I should have done anyway,” Leahy said.
The Center for National Security Studies and other civil liberties advocates have consistently faulted Specter’s proposals. “They would set up a system of sham judicial review,” said the center’s director Kate Martin.
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said the administration still does not believe changes in law are necessary, but added that it remains willing to work with Congress.
“The key point in the bill is that it recognizes the president’s constitutional authority,” she said. “It modernizes (the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) to meet the threat we face from an enemy who kills with abandon.”
Specter told the committee that the bill, among other things, would:
- Require the attorney general to give the intelligence court information on the program’s constitutionality, the government’s efforts to protect Americans’ identities and the basis used to determine that the intercepted communications involve terrorism.
- Expand the time for emergency warrants secured under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act from three to seven days.
- Create a new offense if government officials misuse information.
- At the NSA’s request, clarify that international calls that merely pass through terminals in the United States are not subject to the judicial process established under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
The administration official, who asked not to be identified because discussions are still ongoing, said the bill also would give the attorney general power to consolidate the 100 lawsuits filed against the surveillance operations into one case before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
Specter did not explain to his committee that detail, which is likely to raise the ire of civil liberties groups.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said in an interview that Specter’s agreement with the White House raises the “thorny question” about whether the content of conversations should be subject to individual courts warrants.
“I really need to see the bill,” said Feinstein, one of a select group of lawmakers who has been fully briefed on the monitoring operations.