The Bush administration has endorsed legislation to change U.S. law to accommodate a controversial anti-terrorism surveillance program that some critics have called illegal.  A Senate hearing focused on the issue.

The wiretapping program allows for warrant-less eavesdropping on international phone calls and e-mails between people in the United States and suspected terrorists overseas. 

Critics have questioned its legality, noting that it bypasses a special federal court whose approval is required under a 1978 law known as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act for domestic wiretapping operations.

President Bush, who authorized the program after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, has argued he has the constitutional authority to do so to protect national security.

The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senator Arlen Specter, has worked with the White House to craft compromise legislation that would allow a secret court to review the program to determine its legality.

"The constitutional requirements are that there has to be a balancing of the value to security contrasted with the intrusion into privacy, and that can only be determined by judicial review," he said.

But critics, including the top Democrat on the Senate committee, Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, say the legislation would basically rubber stamp the controversial program by not requiring individual warrants, the underpinning of U.S. civil liberties protections.

"It has been called a compromise," he said.  "But this Vermonter does not believe we should ever compromise on requiring the executive to submit to the rule of law no matter who is president.  I am sad to say I see the bill less as a compromise and more as a concession."

Under questioning by Senator Specter, Lieutenant General Keith Alexander, the director of the National Security Agency, which conducts the program, said the process of obtaining warrants would take crucial time away from anti-terror efforts.

Alexander:  "You would be so far behind the target if you were in hot pursuit with the numbers of applications that you would have to make and the times to make those, you could never catch up."

Specter:  "So your conclusion is that to have individual warrants it would not be practical or effective in what you are seeking to accomplish?"

Alexander:  "That is correct."

Central Intelligence Agency Director Michael Hayden, who set up the program when he led the NSA in 2001, endorsed the compromise legislation, saying it is necessary to update the 1978 law for the internet age.
"All of us exist on a unitary integrated global telecommunications grid in which geography is an increasingly irrelevant factor," he said.

It is not clear when the Senate will act on the legislation.