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.