Roberts waffles on domestic spying

The chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, breaking ranks with the president on domestic eavesdropping, says he wants a special court to oversee the program.

But less than a day later, a top aide to Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., sought to clarify his position.

Roberts told The New York Times that he is concerned that the secret court established by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act could not issue warrants as quickly as the monitoring program requires. But he is optimistic that the problem could be worked out.

"You don’t want to have a situation where you have capability that doesn’t work well with the FISA court, in terms of speed and agility and hot pursuit," Roberts said Friday.

While he didn’t know how such a process would work, Roberts also said the much-discussed National Security Agency program "should come before the FISA court."

Roberts was not available on Saturday. The Senate Intelligence Committee’s majority staff director, Bill Duhnke, said the Times story did not reflect "the tenor and status" of the negotiations between Congress and the White House, as well as within Congress.

Duhnke said Roberts is looking at changes within the federal law but not necessarily involving the approval of the court.

"The senator remains open to a number of legislative and oversight options," Duhnke said Saturday. "His preference is always that the entire (intelligence) committee be briefed and involved in oversight issues. He also realizes that, as you negotiate between the branches, that isn’t always possible."

Duhnke said Roberts hopes that during this negotiation process that all sides can be accommodated.

Roberts told the Times that he does not believe much support exists among lawmakers for exempting the program from the control of the FISA court. That is the approach Bush has favored and one that would be established under a bill proposed by Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio.

White House officials have said their bar for agreeing to any legislative changes would be high. They have signaled they are open only to legislation that would "further codify" in law the authority the president insists he already has without Congress’ approval, something officials believe would be accomplished with DeWine’s proposal.

Bush also has been cool to expansive debate about the program, saying Friday that the discussion going on now is "too bad, because guess who listens to the discussion? The enemy."

Roberts has defended Bush’s program, which was revealed by the Times in a story in December. Bush says the program to monitor electronic communication between the United States and international sites involving suspected al-Qaida operatives is vital to anti-terrorism efforts.

On Thursday, Roberts said he and the White House had agreed to give lawmakers more information on the nature of the program and that the administration had committed to making changes to the FISA law. At the same time, he delayed a Democratic effort to call for an investigation of the program.

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