Tuesday, December 20, 2005

The chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence yesterday scathingly disputed claims by Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV that he harbored deep concerns about the Bush administration’s warrantless domestic surveillance program when he was briefed on the matter.

Sen. Pat Roberts, Kansas Republican and chairman of the normally apolitical committee, said he was “puzzled” by a letter that Mr. Rockefeller, West Virginia Democrat and vice chairman of the committee, said he sent to Vice President Dick Cheney in 2003 after one such briefing.

“In his letter … Senator Rockefeller asserts that he had lingering concerns about the program designed to protect the American people from another attack, but was prohibited from doing anything about it,” Mr. Roberts said in a statement yesterday. “A United States Senator has significant tools with which to wield power and influence over the executive branch. Feigning helplessness is not one of those tools.”

In his 2003 letter to Mr. Cheney, Mr. Rockefeller said the program raised “profound oversight issues” and he regretted that high security of the program prevented him from seeking advice on the matter. Mr. Rockefeller also told Mr. Cheney that he had made a handwritten copy of the letter, which he distributed to the press Monday.

If Mr. Rockefeller had these concerns, Mr. Roberts said, he could have raised them with him or other members of Congress who had been briefed on the program.

“I have no recollection of Senator Rockefeller objecting to the program at the many briefings he and I attended together,” Mr. Roberts said. “In fact, it is my recollection that on many occasions Senator Rockefeller expressed to the vice president his vocal support for the program,” most recently, “two weeks ago.”

“The real question is whether the Administration lived up to its statutory requirement to fully inform Congress and allow for adequate oversight and debate,” Mr. Rockefeller said. “The simple answer is no.”

Mr. Roberts accused Mr. Rockefeller of political opportunism.

“Now, when it appears to be politically advantageous, Senator Rockefeller has chosen to release his two and a half year old letter,” he said. “Forgive me if I find this to be … a bit disingenuous.”

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, announced that she wrote a letter, too, but couldn’t provide it because, she said, it was classified.

“When I learned that the National Security Agency had been authorized to conduct the activities that President Bush referred to in his December 17 radio address, I expressed my strong concerns in a classified letter to the administration and later verbally,” she said in a statement issued yesterday.

Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill agreed that hearings should be conducted into the matter, but disagreed over whether those hearings should be public or sealed to protect classified information.

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