Monday, February 20, 2006

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter is drafting legislation to curtail President Bush’s warrantless surveillance program that the president touts as a tool to stop and capture terrorists.

While it is not clear how such a law would work — or even if Congress has the authority to pass such legislation — Mr. Specter said he hopes to offer something in the coming weeks.

The Pennsylvania Republican is among several members of his party who have expressed reservations about the program, which monitors the international communications of suspected terrorists.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle worry that the program allows for electronic surveillance of Americans without warrants.

The Bush administration argues that the president has the “inherent authority” derived directly from Article 2 of the Constitution to perform such surveillance in the name of national security. Therefore, administration officials and some Capitol Hill Republicans say, Congress has no authority to interfere without first amending the Constitution.

Still, Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Pat Roberts, Kansas Republican, said last week that the White House had reached an “agreement in principle” with congressional leaders to include more lawmakers in the oversight of the program.

“The administration is now committed to legislation and has agreed to brief more intelligence committee members on the nature of the surveillance program,” Mr. Roberts told reporters last week.

Mr. Specter’s bill, however, would go further.

He wants to place the entire program under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court, which is responsible for granting warrants for domestic surveillance in pursuit of foreign intelligence. He also has suggested that the program should expire without express congressional approval every 45 days.

One of Mr. Specter’s most contentious suggestions has been to request that the FISA court review the program and determine whether it is constitutional.

Mr. Specter said last week that he gladly would defer to any legislation offered by Mr. Roberts but said: “Where’s the legislation?”

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said yesterday that the administration is continuing discussions with congressional leaders about how to beef up involvement in the program.

“We’re open to ideas from members of Congress, so long as they don’t compromise this vital tool,” he said. “The terrorist-surveillance program helps us to connect the dots and save lives and prevent attacks.

“We will continue to listen to ideas from members of Congress, and we will continue to work with them on legislation that would protect this vital program and address some of the issues that have been raised.”

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