- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 5, 2006

What will the coming National Security Agency wiretap hearings reveal and how will they affect U.S. surveillance of al Qaeda? Much depends on whether they are held in Sen. Arlen Specter’s Judiciary Committee or in Sen. Pat Roberts’ Intelligence Committee. Republicans should welcome these hearings; they can only demonstrate that the president acted in the nation’s best interests. The caveat here is informational security; any hearing must keep sensitive sources and methods secret.

Quiet and high-stakes negotiations are currently occurring between Mr. Specter on the one hand — who threw down the gauntlet last month by promising to hold them in the Judiciary Committee — and Mr. Roberts and the Senate leadership on the other. Opinion in the Republican leadership strongly favors Mr. Roberts, whose committee, according to one highly placed Republican Senate source, is rightly viewed as “geared toward discretion,” whereas the Judiciary Committee is viewed — also rightly — as “geared toward leaking.” It also happens that a Judiciary hearing would likely be mostly open for all to see; an Intelligence Committee hearing likely would not be. The other relevant fact is that the House appears unlikely to get involved in the hearings; it has made few moves in that direction so far.

Operationally speaking, the question of openness matters, as do leaks. A leaker might intend to expose what he views as Bush administration malfeasance but end up exposing sources or methods in the process. Hypothetically speaking, in the case of the wiretaps, such sources and methods could entail things like the locations and types of wires the NSA taps, codes, frequencies or some other operational tool whose efficacy depends foremost on their remaining secret. All else being equal, people who value secrets should prefer that fewer rather than many people access this information. It doesn’t take malice or intentional wrong to compromise these secrets; only lack of foresight or indiscretion.

In that regard, the Intelligence Committee is the obvious choice for these hearings. It is more discrete, more capable, and was created for precisely this kind of oversight.

Perhaps the oddest element of this debate so far is the assumption by people like Mr. Specter and the many Democrats who disagree. They think that President Bush has something to hide or is otherwise politically vulnerable on this issue; in reality he has nothing to hide, and he is not vulnerable. As evidence of that, a Dec. 28 Rasmussen poll showed that nearly two-thirds of Americans think the program is justified. Only 23 percent do not.

The only things that need hiding here are intelligence sources and methods. President Bush is proud of the wiretap program, and rightly so. That’s why he has aggressively defended it since its revelation. As one administration official told Time this week, the White House’s strategy is “to overwhelm the skeptics, not back off, not change anything about the program and home in very strongly on the fact that this is a legitimate part of presidential warmaking power.” That is not a defensive stance; that is not a flak-minimizing strategy.

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