Democratic and Republican calls mounted on Tuesday for U.S. congressional hearings into President George W. Bush’s assertion that he can order warrantless spying on Americans with suspected terrorist ties.
Vice President Dick Cheney predicted a backlash against critics of the administration’s anti-terrorism policies. He also dismissed charges that Bush overstepped his constitutional bounds when he implemented the recently disclosed eavesdropping shortly after the September 11 attacks.
Republican Sens. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Olympia Snowe of Maine joined Democratic Sens. Carl Levin of Michigan, Dianne Feinstein of California and Ron Wyden of Oregon in calling for a joint investigation by the Senate Intelligence and Judiciary Committees into whether the government eavesdropped “without appropriate legal authority.”
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said he would prefer separate hearings by the Judiciary Committee, which has already promised one, and Intelligence Committee.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican, was noncommittal, saying he first wanted to further explore the matter.
“I have been in discussion with the various chairmen and will continue that discussion,” Frist said. “And then decisions will be made as to whether or not (there will be) hearings, and where such hearings would be carried out.”
Bush, Cheney and other senior administration officials have defended the policy of authorizing — without court orders — eavesdropping on international phone calls and e-mails by Americans suspected of links to terrorism.
They argue it was legal and provided the agility — beyond a 1978 law allowing court-warranted eavesdropping — to help defend the country after the September 11 attacks.
Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean called the administration’s policy an abuse of power.
“Americans need a president who will keep them safe and enforce the law, we don’t need a big brother. Americans know we don’t have to sacrifice our basic liberties in order to fight the terrorists,” Dean said in a videotaped statement.
The administration has also contended it was authorized to order the eavesdropping under a congressional resolution to respond with all necessary force.
“I have grave doubts as to its applicability,” said Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, adding Bush’s order “raises very fundamental questions … about privacy and the Bill of Rights.”
Fellow Republican Sen. Robert Bennett of Utah, however, said, “I have no doubt that hearings will show that the president was within his rights.”
The White House brushed aside calls for hearings. “This is still a highly classified program and there are details that it’s important not be disclosed,” spokesman Scott McClellan said.
The White House also sought to play down the impact on civil liberties, arguing the program was narrow in scope and that key congressional leaders were “briefed in the appropriate way” about it.
Senior Democrats said those briefings left out key details and that Congress was prevented from exercising its oversight authority because the information was classified.
‘HELL OF A THREAT
Cheney, speaking to reporters during an overseas trip, defended the eavesdropping program as necessary to combat “a hell of a threat.”
“And I don’t think that there is anything improper or inappropriate in that and my guess is that the vast majority of the American people support that,” he said.
The senators calling for a joint investigation by the Senate Intelligence and Judiciary committees requested detailed information.
“It is critical that Congress determine, as quickly as possible, exactly what collection activities were authorized, what were actually undertaken, how many names and numbers were involved over what period, and what was the asserted legal authority for such activities,” they wrote in a letter to the Republican chairmen and ranking Democrats on the two panels.
(Additional reporting by Tabassum Zakaria in Muscat, Oman, Patricia Wilson in Washington)
© Reuters 2005