WASHINGTON - Senior Bush administration officials told Congress on Tuesday that they could not pledge that the administration would continue to seek warrants from a secret court for a domestic wiretapping program, as it agreed to do in January.
As a result of the January agreement, the administration said that the National Security Agency's domestic spying program has been brought under the legal structure laid out in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which requires court-approved warrants for the wiretapping of American citizens and others inside the United States.
But on Tuesday, the senior officials, including Michael McConnell, the new director of national intelligence, said they believed that the president still had the authority under Article II of the Constitution to once again order the N.S.A. to conduct surveillance inside the country without warrants.
During a hearing Tuesday of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Mr. McConnell was asked by Senator Russ Feingold, Democrat of Wisconsin, whether he could promise that the administration would no longer sidestep the court when seeking warrants.
"Sir, the president's authority under Article II is in the Constitution," Mr. McConnell said. "So if the president chose to exercise Article II authority, that would be the president's call."
The administration had earlier argued that both the president's inherent executive powers under Article II of the Constitution, as well as the September 2001 Congressional authorization to use military force against Al Qaeda, provided him with the power to conduct surveillance without warrants.
Mr. McConnell emphasized that all domestic electronic surveillance was now being conducted with court-approved warrants, and said that there were no plans "that we are formulating or thinking about currently" to resume domestic wiretapping without warrants.
"But I'd just highlight," he said, "Article II is Article II, so in a different circumstance, I can't speak for the president what he might decide."
The exchange came as the administration is seeking new legislation to update the surveillance act to expand the government's surveillance powers, in part to deal with vast changes in communications technology since 1978, when the measure was enacted.
The White House says that the outmoded rules embedded in the law mean that the government cannot eavesdrop on some telephone calls, e-mail and other communications that do not involve Americans or impinge on the privacy rights of people inside the United States.
While administration officials, citing national security concerns, have declined to discuss publicly what communications gaps they wish to plug, their proposed legislation seems designed to single out so-called "transit traffic," purely international telephone calls and e-mail that go from one foreign country to another, but happen to be digitally routed through the United States telecommunications system.
The administration's proposal would also provide legal immunity for telecommunications companies that cooperated with the National Security Agency's surveillance program without warrants before it was brought under the surveillance act in January. It would also provide legal protections for government workers who took part in the N.S.A. program.
Several Democratic lawmakers expressed frustration on Tuesday that the administration had not provided documents related to the National Security Agency program, which the White House called the Terrorist Surveillance Program. They suggested that they would be reluctant to agree to a change in the surveillance law without more information from the White House.
"To this day, we have never been provided the presidential authorization that cleared that program to go or the attorney general-Department of Justice opinions that declared it to be lawful," said Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrat of Rhode Island. "Where's the transparency as to the presidential authorizations for this closed program? That's a pretty big 'we're not going to tell you' in this new atmosphere of trust we're trying to build."
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