A senior Republican senator accused Vice President Dick Cheney on Wednesday of undermining his Senate panel’s plan to subpoena telephone executives for a hearing on President George W. Bush’s domestic spying program.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania said in a bluntly worded letter to Cheney that the vice president’s actions were part of a larger White House effort to keep the courts and Congress from examining constitutional questions raised by the warrantless eavesdropping program.
Specter wrote to Cheney a day after he said the vice president’s action prompted him to delay a plan to subpoena telephone company executives to testify about what role, if any, their companies played in the spy program.
“I was surprised, to say the least, that you sought to influence, really determine, the action of the committee without calling me first, or at least calling me at some point,” Specter told Cheney in the letter.
He said Cheney had asked Republicans to oppose “any … hearing, even a closed one” and advised lawmakers the companies were “not to provide any information to the committee as they were prohibited from disclosing classified information.”
The domestic spying program, which Bush ordered soon after the September 11 attacks, allows the National Security Agency to monitor the international phone calls and e-mails of U.S. citizens without first obtaining warrants if in pursuit of al Qaeda suspects.
Specter and other critics say the program violates the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, which requires warrants from a secret federal court for intelligence-related eavesdropping inside the United States.
Verizon Communications and BellSouth Corp. have denied a USA Today report that they gave tens of millions of phone records to the National Security Agency. AT&T Inc., which was also named in the report, has not addressed the issue.
Cheney spokeswoman Lea Anne McBride said the vice president had not yet studied the letter. But she said the White House was prepared to consider congressional measures to bring the program under federal law, including one from Specter.
Specter has crafted legislation that would compel the Bush administration to submit the program for constitutional review by the FISA court.
In his letter, Specter said he had been unable to get any White House response to the measure, “including a ‘no.”‘
Specter says questions about the spying program’s legitimacy under the U.S. Constitution cannot be determined until the administration discloses details of its operation to his committee or the FISA court.
The White House has instead shared details of the program with the intelligence oversight committees in the Senate and the House of Representatives.
“The administration’s continuing position on the NSA electronic surveillance program rejects the historical constitutional practice of judicial approval of warrants before wiretapping and denigrates the constitutional authority and responsibility of Congress,” Specter said.
© 2006 Reuters