After weeks of insisting it would not reveal details of its eavesdropping without warrants, the White House reversed course Wednesday and provided a House committee with highly classified information about the operation.
The White House has been under heavy pressure from lawmakers who wanted more information about the National Security Agency’s monitoring. Democrats and many Republicans rejected the administration’s contention that they could not be trusted with national security secrets.
The shift came the same day Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., announced he is drafting legislation that would require the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to review the administration’s monitoring program and determine if it is constitutional.
It also came after Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., chairwoman of a House intelligence subcommittee that oversees the NSA, broke with the Bush administration and called for a full review of the NSA’s program, along with legislative action to update the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
She and others also wanted the full House Intelligence Committee to be briefed on the program’s operational details. Although the White House initially promised only information about the legal rationale for surveillance, administration officials broadened the scope Wednesday to include more sensitive details about how the program works.
“I think we’ve had a tremendous impact today,” Wilson said at a news conference as Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and Gen. Michael Hayden, the nation’s No. 2 intelligence official, briefed the full Intelligence Committee.
“I don’t think the White House would have made the decision that it did had I not stood up and said, ‘You must brief the Intelligence Committee,'” said Wilson, a U.S. Air Force veteran.
When asked what prompted the move to give lawmakers more details, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said the administration has stated “from the beginning that we will work with members of Congress, and we will continue to do so regarding this vital national security program.”
Questions from Congress about the monitoring abound. House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., sent a letter to Gonzales with 51 questions he wants answered by early March.
As part of his upcoming bill, Specter said he wants the FISA court to review the program to weigh the nature of the terrorist threat, the program’s scope, the number of people being monitored and how the information is being handled. If the judges find the program unconstitutional, he said the administration should make changes.
“The president should have all the tools he needs to fight terrorism, but we also want to maintain our civil liberties,” Specter said.
At least one Democrat left the four-hour House Intelligence Committee session saying he had a better understanding of legal and operational aspects of the anti-terrorist surveillance program, being conducted without warrants. But he said he still had a number of questions.
“It’s a different program than I was beginning to let myself believe,” said Alabama Rep. Bud Cramer, the senior Democrat on the Intelligence Committee’s oversight subcommittee.
“This may be a valuable program,” Cramer said, adding that he didn’t know if it was legal. “My direction of thinking was changed tremendously.”
Still, Cramer said, some members remain angry and frustrated, and he didn’t know why the White House waited so long to inform Congress of its actions.
Lawmakers leaving the briefing said it covered the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, Justice Department papers outlining legal justifications for the operations, limited details on success stories and some highly sensitive details.
The White House has insisted that it has the legal authority to monitor terror-related international communications in cases in which one party to the call is in the United States.
For more than 50 days, senior officials have argued that President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney were within the law when they chose to brief only the eight lawmakers who lead the House and Senate and their intelligence committees.
In a PBS interview Tuesday, Cheney said that if all 70 members of the House and Senate intelligence committees were briefed over the program’s four years, “it’s not a good way to keep a secret.”
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich., one of the eight fully briefed, said he still knows more about the program than the rest of the committee. But, he said, “there is very little left to the imagination” of those members who attended the briefing.
Said California Rep. Jane Harman, the panel’s top Democrat, “The ice is melting, and we are making progress.”
While Harman continues to support the program, she said she remains uncomfortable with the administration’s legal justification. Harman said she believes the administration should have used the court processes set up under the FISA law and gotten warrants before eavesdropping on Americans.
Wilson, Harman and other committee members want to hold hearings on that law to review whether it should be updated. Hoekstra said he was open to hearings on the law but said such a review has “nothing to do” with the president’s program.