By JAMES ROSEN
February 03, 2006
The heated exchanges at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, four days before Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' scheduled congressional testimony on the wiretapping, disrupted a session that was supposed to examine worldwide threats to the United States.
With the government's four top intelligence officials on hand, the hearing quickly became a fierce debate over the scope and legality of the electronic surveillance Bush authorized soon after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
Bush says the wiretapping, conducted without a warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court Congress established in 1978, is limited to phone calls in which someone in the United States is talking with a suspected or known member of al Qaeda or an affiliated terrorist group overseas. But the initiative has sparked a national uproar since the New York Times revealed its existence in December.
"Those folks who continue to go out front and talk in a negative way about this program may be aiding and abetting the terrorists," said Sen. Saxby Chambliss, a Georgia Republican.
Chambliss later told reporters: "The phone calls that we are monitoring are coming from people who we know to be bad guys that live in other parts of the world . . . whose sole purpose is to kill and harm Americans."
CIA Director Porter Goss said public disclosure of the surveillance, performed by the National Security Agency, has greatly harmed his agency's ability to gather intelligence about terrorists.
"The damage has been very severe to our capabilities to carry out our mission," Goss said.
That claim prompted a sharp retort from Sen. Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat who said Bush and his top aides have discussed the program in detail.
"The greatest publicizing of this NSA program that I've heard was when I sat in front of the president of the United States the other night at the State of the Union (address) and heard him discussing it in front of the whole world."
Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, the intelligence panel's senior Democrat, criticized a rare news conference last week by Gen. Michael Hayden, who joined Goss, national intelligence czar John Negroponte and FBI Director Robert Mueller at the hearing.
"The general's unusual appearance before the press corps and other related public statements give the disturbing impression to some that the intelligence community has become a public relations arm of the White House," Rockefeller said.
Rockefeller joined Democratic Sens. Diane Feinstein of California, Carl Levin of Michigan and Ron Wyden of Oregon in hammering the intelligence officials on the program's legality.
Republicans, led by Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, the committee chairman, Chambliss and Sen. John Warner of Virginia, pressed them on pursuing those who leaked its existence.
"I've called in the FBI, the Department of Justice," Goss said. "It is my aim and it is my hope that we will witness a grand jury investigation with reporters present being asked to reveal who is leaking this information."
The Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to hold the first formal hearing on the wiretapping Monday, with Gonzales called to testify.
After Negroponte and Goss explained that only eight members of Congress had been briefed on the wiretapping - including Roberts and Rockefeller as chairman and ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee - Rockefeller lambasted them for suggesting that other members of Congress couldn't be trusted with the information.
Rockefeller mused that the leak likely came from the executive branch.
"It surely didn't come out of Chairman Roberts or Jay Rockefeller," he said. "And my guess would be somewhere in the Department of Justice."
It was Mueller's turn to be offended.
"I don't think it's fair to point a finger as to the responsibility of the leak," he retorted.
Feinstein said the secrecy over the electronic surveillance was part of a larger pattern by the Bush administration.
"I serve on both Judiciary as well as Intelligence (committees), and what we have seen in the last few years is a defined and consistent stonewalling to prevent the oversight responsibilities of both committees from being carried out," she said.
Feinstein sent a letter to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, urging him to issue subpoenas to Gonzales if he continues to withhold executive memos used to provide legal justification for the eavesdropping.
Feinstein released a separate letter to all members of Congress from 14 prominent law professors and other legal scholars challenging the surveillance, including several who served in previous Democratic and Republican presidential administrations.
Levin, Wyden and Feinstein repeatedly pressed the intelligence officials on their recent claims that the surveillance has saved American lives and prevented terrorist attacks. They grilled the officials over how many calls have been intercepted and what happens with the information if it is determined to be unrelated to terrorism.
"They're reviewed legally with the greatest of care," Negroponte said. "There are very senior managers involved in their administration. And as far as American persons or American individuals are concerned protections are taken . . . to minimize and protect their identities."
After two hours of debate, Roberts, the committee chairman, appeared to grow tired of quarreling over the proper balance between protecting Americans from terrorist attacks and guarding their constitutional freedoms.
"I would only point out that you really don't have any civil liberties if you're dead," Roberts said.
Lucia Graves of the Washington bureau contributed to this report.
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