Thursday, March 2, 2006

The House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence agreed yesterday to a program of oversight for the National Security Agency’s warrantless counterterrorist surveillance.

Rep. Peter Hoekstra, Michigan Republican and panel chairman, said the committee would appoint a small group of members, perhaps an existing subcommittee, whom the administration would brief on the wiretapping effort.

He said the committee also had agreed to initiate an inquiry into the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, the law governing the use of wiretapping and other forms of electronic surveillance for national security purposes inside the United States, with an eye to reforming it.

“We will work with the White House to have the members … fully briefed on the NSA program to expand and increase oversight of this critical terrorism-prevention tool,” he said.

He said some details had yet to be worked out, but he stressed that the administration had agreed in principle to expand oversight of the NSA program beyond the current eight leaders — the leaders of both parties in the House and the Senate and the chairmen and ranking members of the intelligence committees of both chambers.

A White House spokesman said the administration had been “for several weeks … committed to legislation and to briefing more members … to ensure reasonable oversight that allows the program to operate effectively and maintain its secrecy.”

But the official stressed that no deal had been finalized: “We have not committed to any particular idea or legislative proposal. … We are actively discussing the matter with Congress.”

“The only question open is how big the group [of members being briefed] will be, and how it will be made up,” Mr. Hoekstra said, adding that the shape of the final oversight mechanism might depend in part on the outcome of negotiations in the Senate.

Committee officials said that at least two subcommittees, the one on technical and tactical intelligence and the one on oversight, had a claim to jurisdiction over the issue.

Democrats said they would continue to push for wider oversight of the program. The committee’s ranking Democrat, Rep. Jane Harman of California, called yesterday’s deal “progress” but said she continued to “believe that we will still need a full and complete briefing for the entire committee on operational details.”

Since its inception in October 2001, briefings about the NSA program — under which phone calls and other electronic communications into or out of the United States can be monitored without a warrant if one of the participants is thought to be a member of al Qaeda or an affiliated terror group — were limited to the eight leaders until last month.

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