December 20, 2005

Senators members seek spying probe

By Adam Entous and Thomas Ferraro

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Democratic and Republican calls
mounted on Tuesday for U.S. congressional hearings into
President George W. Bush's assertion that he can order
warrantless spying on Americans with suspected terrorist ties.

Vice President Dick Cheney predicted a backlash against
critics of the administration's anti-terrorism policies. He
also dismissed charges that Bush overstepped his constitutional
bounds when he implemented the recently disclosed eavesdropping
shortly after the September 11 attacks.

Republican Sens. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Olympia Snowe
of Maine joined Democratic Sens. Carl Levin of Michigan, Dianne
Feinstein of California and Ron Wyden of Oregon in calling for
a joint investigation by the Senate Intelligence and Judiciary
Committees into whether the government eavesdropped "without
appropriate legal authority."

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said
he would prefer separate hearings by the Judiciary Committee,
which has already promised one, and Intelligence Committee.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican,
was noncommittal, saying he first wanted to further explore the

"I have been in discussion with the various chairmen and
will continue that discussion," Frist said. "And then decisions
will be made as to whether or not (there will be) hearings, and
where such hearings would be carried out."

Bush, Cheney and other senior administration officials have
defended the policy of authorizing -- without court orders --
eavesdropping on international phone calls and e-mails by
Americans suspected of links to terrorism.

They argue it was legal and provided the agility -- beyond
a 1978 law allowing court-warranted eavesdropping -- to help
defend the country after the September 11 attacks.

The administration has also contended it was authorized to
order the eavesdropping under a congressional resolution to
respond with all necessary force.

"I have grave doubts as to its applicability," said Senate
Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania
Republican, adding Bush's order "raises very fundamental
questions ... about privacy and the Bill of Rights."

Yet fellow Republican Sen. Robert Bennett of Utah said, "I
have no doubt that hearings will show that the president was
within his rights."

The White House brushed aside calls for hearings. "This is
still a highly classified program and there are details that
it's important not be disclosed," spokesman Scott McClellan

The White House also sought to play down the impact on
civil liberties, arguing the program was narrow in scope and
that key congressional leaders were "briefed in the appropriate
way" about it.

Senior Democrats said those briefings left out key details
and that Congress was prevented from exercising its oversight
authority because the information was classified.


Cheney, speaking to reporters during an overseas trip,
defended the eavesdropping program as necessary to combat "a
hell of a threat."

"And I don't think that there is anything improper or
inappropriate in that and my guess is that the vast majority of
the American people support that," he said.

The senators calling for a joint investigation by the
Senate Intelligence and Judiciary committees requested detailed

"It is critical that Congress determine, as quickly as
possible, exactly what collection activities were authorized,
what were actually undertaken, how many names and numbers were
involved over what period, and what was the asserted legal
authority for such activities," they wrote in a letter to the
Republican chairmen and ranking Democrats on the two panels.

(Additional reporting by Tabassum Zakaria in Muscat, Oman,
Patricia Wilson in Washington)