View Full Version : Senate Panel Decides Against Eavesdropping Inquiry, For Now

02-17-2006, 11:18 AM
Senate Panel Decides Against Eavesdropping Inquiry, for Now


(Gold9472: It must be nice to have the Senate Intelligence Committee in your back pocket.)


WASHINGTON, Feb. 16 — The Senate Intelligence Committee decided today not to investigate President Bush's domestic surveillance program, at least for the time being.

"I believe that such an investigation is currently unwarranted and would be detrimental to this highly classified program," Senator Pat Roberts, Republican of Kansas and chairman of the panel, said this afternoon following a closed session.

While Mr. Roberts's announcement signaled that the administration's eavesdropping program would not be subject to Senate scrutiny, at least for the time being, there was no guarantee that the House would not go ahead with an inquiry of its own.

Mr. Roberts said "an agreement in principle" had been reached with the administration whereby lawmakers would be given more information on the surveillance operation run by the National Security Agency.

"The details of this agreement will take some time to work out," Mr. Roberts said.But the committee's ranking Democrat, John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia, was clearly unhappy after the meeting and said it made no sense to pursue legislation when the full details of the surveillance program were not known. Mr. Roberts said Mr. Rockefeller's proposal for an investigation would be reconsidered when the committee reconvenes on March 7.

"If by that time we have reached no detailed accommodation with the administration concerning the committee's oversight role, it is possible that the committee may vote to conduct an inquiry into the program," Mr. Roberts said. He added, "The administration has come a long way in the last month. I am optimistic that we will have an agreement before the committee meets again."

Although Republicans outnumber Democrats, 8 to 7, on the committee, there had been some suspense over whether the panel would vote to investigate the operation. Two committee Republicans, Orrin G. Hatch of Utah and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, are among lawmakers who have called for Congress to be given more information on the N.S.A.'s operation.

Several Republican senators not on the committee have also expressed a desire for more information from the administration. And Representative Heather A. Wilson, Republican of New Mexico and chairwoman of the House Intelligence Subcommittee on Technical and Tactical Intelligence, said in a recent interview that she had "serious concerns" about the surveillance program.

Earlier today, the Senate handed the administration a victory as it voted, 96 to 3, not to hold up the Patriot Act to incorporate changes urged by Senator Russell D. Feingold, the act's most persistent critic.

Mr. Feingold, Democrat of Wisconsin, said he wants to make the Senate debate several more days on the bill, and under the Senate's rules he can do so. But today's vote signaled that, once Mr. Feingold has exhausted his moves, the act will indeed be renewed by the Senate before its scheduled expiration on March 10.

In explaining his continued resistance, Mr. Feingold borrowed a quote from Senator Arlen Specter, the Pennsylvania Republican who is head of the Judiciary Committee and is the bill's sponsor: "Sometimes cosmetics will make a beauty out of a beast and provide enough cover for senators to change their vote."

Mr. Feingold, not looking for cover, said, "No amount of cosmetics is going to make this beast look any prettier."

Mr. Feingold was the only senator to vote against the Patriot Act, which broadened government surveillance powers, when it was passed by Congress shortly after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The senator has insisted all along that the act impinges too much on personal liberty in the pursuit of national security.

"We still have not addressed some of the most significant problems with the Patriot Act," Mr. Feingold insisted today.

Joining him in voting "no" were Senators Robert C. Byrd, Democrat of West Virginia, and James M. Jeffords, an independent from Vermont. Mr. Byrd is first in seniority in the Senate and a jealous guardian of what he considers Congressional prerogatives against intrusion by the executive branch.

Mr. Jeffords's contrarian streak was demonstrated several years ago, when he bolted the Republican Party. (Senator David Vitter, Republican of Louisiana, did not vote today.)

The White House said it was pleased at the action on the Patriot Act. "There was a good agreement that was reached by members of the Senate," said Scott McClellan, the White House spokesman. "It was reached in a good faith effort. Yet there are still some Senate Democrats that want to continue to engage in obstructionist tactics and prevent this vital legislation from being reauthorized."

The House has already voted to renew the Patriot Act. But the law met stiff resistance from some senators of both parties. Modifications to the statute in recent weeks have satisfied the overwhelming majority of the senators.

But not Mr. Feingold has complained that even as modified the bill would still allow "government fishing expeditions" through the seizure of "sensitive business records of innocent, law-abiding Americans."

Not many weeks ago, Senator John E. Sununu, Republican of New Hampshire, was among the senators sharing Mr. Feingold's concerns. But Mr. Sununu said he was satisfied with changes in the law. "In an effort like this," he said, "no party ever gets everything that they want."