Democrats and Republicans called separately Sunday for congressional investigations into President Bush’s decision after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to allow domestic eavesdropping without court approval.
“The president has, I think, made up a law that we never passed,” said Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis.
Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Penn., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he intends to hold hearings.
“They talk about constitutional authority,” Specter said. “There are limits as to what the president can do.”
Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada also called for an investigation, and House Democratic leaders asked Speaker Dennis Hastert to create a bipartisan panel to do the same.
Bush acknowledged Saturday that since October 2001 he has authorized the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on international phone calls and e-mails of people within the United States without seeking warrants from courts.
The New York Times disclosed the existence of the program last week. Bush and other administration officials initially refused to discuss the surveillance or their legal authority, citing security concerns.
“It’s been briefed to the Congress over a dozen times, and, in fact, it is a program that is, by every effort we’ve been able to make, consistent with the statutes and with the law,” Vice President Dick Cheney said Sunday in an interview with ABC News “Nightline” to be broadcast Monday evening: “It’s the kind of capability if we’d had before 9/11 might have led us to be able to prevent 9/11.”
President Bush and other administration officials also have said congressional leaders had been briefed regularly on the program. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said there were no objections raised by lawmakers who were told about it.
“That’s a legitimate part of the equation,” McCain said on ABC’s “This Week.” But he said Bush still needs to explain why he chose to ignore the law that requires approval of a special court for domestic wiretaps.
Reid acknowledged he had been briefed on the four-year-old domestic spy program “a couple months ago” but insisted the administration bears full responsibility. Reid became Democratic leader in January.
“The president can’t pass the buck on this one. This is his program,” Reid said on “Fox News Sunday.” “He’s commander in chief. But commander in chief does not trump the Bill of Rights.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement Saturday that she had been told on several occasions about unspecified activities by the NSA. Pelosi said she expressed strong concerns at the time.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on “Fox News Sunday” that Bush “has gone to great lengths to make certain that he is both living under his obligations to protect Americans from another attack but also to protect their civil liberties.”
Several lawmakers weren’t so sure. They pointed to a 1978 federal law, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which provides for domestic surveillance under extreme situations, but only with court approval.
Specter said he wants Bush’s advisers to cite their specific legal authority for bypassing the courts. Bush said the attorney general and White House counsel’s office had affirmed the legality of his actions.
Appearing with Specter on CNN’s “Late Edition,” Feingold said Bush is accountable for the program regardless of whether congressional leaders were notified.
“It doesn’t matter if you tell everybody in the whole country if it’s against the law,” said Feingold, a member of the Judiciary Committee.
Bush said the program was narrowly designed and used in a manner “consistent with U.S. law and the Constitution.” He said it targets only international communications of people inside the U.S. with “a clear link” to al-Qaida or related terrorist organizations.
Government officials have refused to define the standards they’re using to establish such a link or to say how many people are being monitored.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., called that troubling. If Bush is allowed to decide unilaterally who the potential terrorists are, he in essense becomes the court, Graham said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
“We are at war, and I applaud the president for being aggressive,” said Graham, who also called for a congressional review. “But we cannot set aside the rule of law in a time of war.”
The existence of the NSA program surfaced as Bush was fighting to save the expiring provisions of the USA Patriot Act, the domestic anti-terrorism law enacted after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Renewal of the law has stalled over some its most contentious provisions, including powers granted law enforcement to gain secret access to library and medical records and other personal data during investigations of suspected terrorist activity.
Democrats have urged Bush to support a brief extension of the law so that changes could be made in the reauthorization, but Bush has refused, saying he wants renewal now.