The wiretap war

Senators traded bitter barbs over President Bush’s wiretapping
initiative Thursday, with Republicans accusing its critics of aiding
terrorists and Democrats charging its supporters of violating the

The heated exchanges at a Senate Intelligence
Committee hearing, four days before Attorney General Alberto Gonzales’
scheduled congressional testimony on the wiretapping, disrupted a
session that was supposed to examine worldwide threats to the United

With the government’s four top intelligence officials on
hand, the hearing quickly became a fierce debate over the scope and
legality of the electronic surveillance Bush authorized soon after the
Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

Bush says the wiretapping, conducted
without a warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court
Congress established in 1978, is limited to phone calls in which
someone in the United States is talking with a suspected or known
member of al Qaeda or an affiliated terrorist group overseas. But the
initiative has sparked a national uproar since the New York Times
revealed its existence in December.

“Those folks who continue to
go out front and talk in a negative way about this program may be
aiding and abetting the terrorists,” said Sen. Saxby Chambliss, a
Georgia Republican.

Chambliss later told reporters: “The phone
calls that we are monitoring are coming from people who we know to be
bad guys that live in other parts of the world . . . whose sole purpose
is to kill and harm Americans.”

CIA Director Porter Goss said
public disclosure of the surveillance, performed by the National
Security Agency, has greatly harmed his agency’s ability to gather
intelligence about terrorists.

“The damage has been very severe to our capabilities to carry out our mission,” Goss said.

That claim prompted a sharp retort from Sen. Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin
Democrat who said Bush and his top aides have discussed the program in

“The greatest publicizing of this NSA program that I’ve
heard was when I sat in front of the president of the United States the
other night at the State of the Union (address) and heard him
discussing it in front of the whole world.”

Sen. Jay Rockefeller
of West Virginia, the intelligence panel’s senior Democrat, criticized
a rare news conference last week by Gen. Michael Hayden, who joined
Goss, national intelligence czar John Negroponte and FBI Director
Robert Mueller at the hearing.

“The general’s unusual appearance
before the press corps and other related public statements give the
disturbing impression to some that the intelligence community has
become a public relations arm of the White House,” Rockefeller said.

Rockefeller joined Democratic Sens. Diane Feinstein of California, Carl
Levin of Michigan and Ron Wyden of Oregon in hammering the intelligence
officials on the program’s legality.

Republicans, led by Sen.
Pat Roberts of Kansas, the committee chairman, Chambliss and Sen. John
Warner of Virginia, pressed them on pursuing those who leaked its

“I’ve called in the FBI, the Department of Justice,”
Goss said. “It is my aim and it is my hope that we will witness a grand
jury investigation with reporters present being asked to reveal who is
leaking this information.”

The Senate Judiciary Committee is
scheduled to hold the first formal hearing on the wiretapping Monday,
with Gonzales called to testify.

After Negroponte and Goss
explained that only eight members of Congress had been briefed on the
wiretapping _ including Roberts and Rockefeller as chairman and ranking
member of the Senate Intelligence Committee _ Rockefeller lambasted
them for suggesting that other members of Congress couldn’t be trusted
with the information.

Rockefeller mused that the leak likely came from the executive branch.

“It surely didn’t come out of Chairman Roberts or Jay Rockefeller,” he
said. “And my guess would be somewhere in the Department of Justice.”

It was Mueller’s turn to be offended.

“I don’t think it’s fair to point a finger as to the responsibility of the leak,” he retorted.

Feinstein said the secrecy over the electronic surveillance was part of a larger pattern by the Bush administration.

“I serve on both Judiciary as well as Intelligence (committees), and
what we have seen in the last few years is a defined and consistent
stonewalling to prevent the oversight responsibilities of both
committees from being carried out,” she said.

Feinstein sent a
letter to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, a
Pennsylvania Republican, urging him to issue subpoenas to Gonzales if
he continues to withhold executive memos used to provide legal
justification for the eavesdropping.

Feinstein released a
separate letter to all members of Congress from 14 prominent law
professors and other legal scholars challenging the surveillance,
including several who served in previous Democratic and Republican
presidential administrations.

Levin, Wyden and Feinstein
repeatedly pressed the intelligence officials on their recent claims
that the surveillance has saved American lives and prevented terrorist
attacks. They grilled the officials over how many calls have been
intercepted and what happens with the information if it is determined
to be unrelated to terrorism.

“They’re reviewed legally with the
greatest of care,” Negroponte said. “There are very senior managers
involved in their administration. And as far as American persons or
American individuals are concerned protections are taken . . . to
minimize and protect their identities.”

After two hours of
debate, Roberts, the committee chairman, appeared to grow tired of
quarreling over the proper balance between protecting Americans from
terrorist attacks and guarding their constitutional freedoms.

“I would only point out that you really don’t have any civil liberties if you’re dead,” Roberts said.

Lucia Graves of the Washington bureau contributed to this report.