There has been more heated debate in Congress over President Bush's approval of a program to spy on communications between suspected terrorists in the United States and those overseas. The Bush administration defends the wiretapping, saying a congressional resolution passed after the September 11, 2001, attacks gave the president authority to approve the wiretaps. But a key Senate Republican says the administration's justifications must be subjected to closer scrutiny.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter is drafting legislation designed to clarify and protect Congress' constitutional powers regarding the spying program. Congress passed a law in 1978, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, forbidding domestic surveillance without a court's permission.
Specter said Wednesday that he has scheduled a hearing on the issue for the end of this month. He said he expects the legislation to be ready by mid-March.
"I am prepared to go in any direction which will submit the [Bush] administration's program to a specific analysis on constitutionality, with all the details on the table, for the people to review who are charged with having that oversight or that determination," said Specter.
Specter wants the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which President Bush bypassed in approving the program, to conduct reviews of the program every 45 days to ensure it is being carried out properly.
Another Republican lawmaker is drafting separate legislation that proposes to exclude the domestic spying effort from the 1978 law covering surveillance.
In the House Judiciary Committee, there was intense debate as opposition Democrats argued vigorously but unsuccessfully in support of requiring Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to turn over documents relevant to the wiretapping program, which was carried out by the National Security Agency.
Allegations by Democrats that Republicans are resisting more extensive hearings and inquiries produced this exchange between the committee chairman, Republican James Sensenbrenner, and Democrat Anthony Weiner.
Sensenbrenner: "I want to get the answers to these questions. You know I am kind of a tiger on that, but give me a break."
Weiner: "Mr. Chairman, yes, but you're having a pussycat moment here."
Congressman Sensenbrenner has set a March 2 deadline for the Bush administration to respond to 51 questions he sent to Attorney General Gonzales concerning the legal justifications and issues of presidential authority.
House Minority leader Nancy Pelosi says Republicans are purposely blocking Democrat demands for wider inquiries. "Closed government is not healthy for a democracy," she said. "Yet again, another example of closed government on the part of Republicans."
Meanwhile, a key Republican House lawmaker says huge damage was done to U.S. anti-terrorism efforts by individuals who leaked information about the domestic spying program.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Peter Hoekstra says those who leaked the story of the wiretapping should be prosecuted.
"There is an aggressive investigation going on as to who leaked this information, how and where it was leaked. It is my hope and expectation that we will identify those individuals who were responsible for it," he said. "They should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, because America is less safe today than we were 54 days ago."
Key House Republicans reiterated their position Wednesday that President Bush had the constitutional authority to approve the domestic spying program, which the White House maintains is narrow in scope, involving intercepts of communications between suspected terrorists in the United States and those overseas.