Prospects Dim for Senate Hearings into NSA Surveillance Program

The chairman of the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee says hearings into the Bush administration's controversial wiretap program may not be necessary as a result of a deal reached with the White House.

Many lawmakers, mostly Democrats, but some Republicans, have questioned the legality of the Bush administration's secret wiretapping program established after the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States. They have called on the Senate Intelligence Committee to hold hearings into the program.

At issue is President Bush's decision to order, without warrants, eavesdropping on international phone calls and emails between people in the United States and suspected terrorists overseas.

The program, conducted by the National Security Agency, bypasses a special federal court whose approval is required under law for domestic wiretapping operations.

But Intelligence Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, a Kansas Republican, announced he worked out an agreement with the White House that calls for changing that law, and includes a promise from the administration to provide more briefings to Congress about the program.

"This week we reached an agreement in principle with the administration. The administration is now committed to legislation and has agreed to brief more intelligence committee members on the nature of the surveillance program," he said.

Roberts says he believes the deal may eliminate the need for congressional hearings.

 "I believe that such an investigation at this point would be detrimental to this highly classified program and efforts to reach some accommodation with the administration. This program I believe is one which is vital for the protection of the American people," he said.

But the top Democrat on the committee, Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, who led the effort for a probe into the surveillance program, says he believes the White House is only trying to pressure Republicans who control the committee to delay or abandon the idea of an inquiry into the program.

"A committee investigation of the National Security Agency's surveillance, eavesdropping activities in the United States is necessary to fully understand the program. That is what the Senate Intelligence Committee was created to do. It is apparent to me, more than apparent, that the White House has applied heavy pressure in recent days and recent weeks to prevent the committee from doing its job," he said.

But Chairman Roberts says if for some reason the agreement with the White House falls through, he would pursue hearings into the surveillance program.

The Intelligence Committee meets again next month.

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