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Republican Speaks Up, Leading Others to Challenge Wiretaps
Published on Saturday, February 11, 2006 by the New York Times
Republican Speaks Up, Leading Others to Challenge Wiretaps
by Sheryl Gay Stolberg
 

WASHINGTON When Representative Heather A. Wilson broke ranks with President Bush on Tuesday to declare her "serious concerns" about domestic eavesdropping, she gave voice to what some fellow Republicans were thinking, if not saying.

Now they are speaking up and growing louder.

In interviews over several days, Congressional Republicans have expressed growing doubts about the National Security Agency program to intercept international communications inside the United States without court warrants. A growing number of Republicans say the program appears to violate the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the 1978 law that created a court to oversee such surveillance, and are calling for revamping the FISA law.

Ms. Wilson and at least six other Republican lawmakers are openly skeptical about Mr. Bush's assertion that he has the inherent authority to order the wiretaps and that Congress gave him the power to do so when it authorized him to use military force after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

The White House, in a turnabout, briefed the full House and Senate Intelligence Committee on the program this week, after Ms. Wilson, chairwoman of the subcommittee that oversees the N.S.A., had called for a full-scale Congressional investigation. But some Republicans say that is not enough.

"I don't think that's sufficient," Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, said. "There is considerable concern about the administration's just citing the president's inherent authority or the authorization to go to war with Iraq as grounds for conducting this program. It's a stretch."

The criticism became apparent on Monday, when Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales was the sole witness before the Senate Judiciary Committee in a hearing on the legality of the eavesdropping. Mr. Gonzales faced tough questioning from 4 of the 10 Republicans on the panel, including its chairman, Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.

By week's end, after Ms. Wilson became the first Republican on either the House or the Senate Intelligence Committees to call for a Congressional inquiry, the critics had become a chorus. Senator Lisa Murkowski, Republican of Alaska, said the more she learned about the program, the more its "gray areas" concerned her.

Mr. Specter said he would draft legislation to put the issue in the hands of the intelligence surveillance court by having its judges rule on the constitutionality of the program.

Even Senator Orrin G. Hatch, the Utah Republican and Judiciary Committee member who has been a staunch supporter of the eavesdropping, said that although he did not think the law needed revising, Congress had to have more oversight.

"The administration has gone a long way in the last couple of days to assure people that this highly classified program is critical to the protection of the nation," Mr. Hatch said. "I think they've more than made a persuasive case. The real question is how do we have oversight?"

In part, the backlash is a symptom of Congressional muscle flexing; a sort of mutiny on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers have been frustrated by the way Mr. Bush boldly exercises his executive authority.

Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, who has also criticized the program, said Ms. Wilson's comments were "a sign of a growing movement" by lawmakers to reassert the power of the legislature.

"This is sort of a Marbury v. Madison moment between the executive and the legislative branch," Mr. Graham said in a reference to the 1803 Supreme Court decision in which the court granted itself the power to declare laws unconstitutional.

"I think there's two things going on," said Mr. Graham, a Judiciary Committee member. "There's an abandonment of you-broke-the-law rhetoric by the Democrats and a more questioning attitude about what the law should be by the Republicans. And that merges for a very healthy debate."

Senator Chuck Hagel, Republican of Nebraska, said: "I don't think anyone wants any kind of constitutional showdown over this. We want the president to succeed, but the fact is we are a coequal branch of government and we have serious oversight responsibilities."

The White House insists that there is no need to amend the law, a position that a spokeswoman, Dana Perino, restated on Friday. But Mr. Bush also made clear on Friday that he was tuned in to the growing Republican angst. At a retreat with House Republicans in Cambridge, Md., he began private remarks by defending the legality of the eavesdropping, a White House pool report said.

Apparently thinking that his microphone had been turned off so reporters could not hear, the president told lawmakers that he wanted to "share some thoughts with you" before answering questions.

"I expect this conversation we're about to have to stay in the room," Mr. Bush began. "I know that's impossible in Washington."

He restated what he had said publicly, that the program was legal and necessary for the nation's safety.

"You've got to understand something about me," Mr. Bush said. "Sept. 11 changed the way I think. I told the people exactly what I felt at the time, and I still feel it, and that is we must do everything in our power to protect the country."

Ms. Wilson later stood up to pose a question, and many in the room braced for a confrontation, said an attendee who insisted on anonymity because the session was private.

But there was no showdown. Ms. Wilson simply thanked Mr. Bush and told him that everyone wanted to catch the terrorists.

At the age of 45, Ms. Wilson has considerable credentials in national security. She is a graduate of the Air Force Academy and a former Air Force officer. A Rhodes Scholar, Ms. Wilson obtained a master's degree and doctorate in international relations. She also worked as an arms control negotiator for the National Security Council under the first President Bush.

"I think that had an impact on the administration," she said. "They knew that people in Congress would listen to me on this."

But Ms. Wilson, who represents a swing district in Albuquerque, also faces a tough re-election challenge from the attorney general of New Mexico, Patricia Madrid.

Representative Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said Ms. Wilson was most likely distancing herself from the White House to curry favor back home.

Yet Representative Jane Harman of California, the senior Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, said Ms. Wilson expressed private concerns to her about the eavesdropping last year, shortly after it became public.

"She was very concerned," said Ms. Harman, who has supported the program in the past but said she now believed that its legal underpinnings were weak. "She came to me, asking me what I thought."

Ms. Wilson said she decided to speak out this week because she had become increasingly "frustrated that the administration was not giving us the information we needed to do our job." With Mr. Gonzales unable or unwilling to answer questions at the Senate hearing, she said, there was no way to determine whether the surveillance law needed to be updated.

"I think the argument that somehow, in passing the use-of-force resolution, that that was authorizing the president and the administration free rein to do whatever they wanted to do, so long as they tied it to the war on terror, was a bit of a stretch," she said. "And I don't think that's what most members of Congress felt they were doing."

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

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