A top intelligence official was prepared to brief the House of Representatives intelligence committee about President George W. Bush’s domestic spying program last December but was stopped by White House Chief of Staff Andy Card, a leading House Democrat said on Tuesday.
Rep. Jane Harman of California, ranking Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said she and fellow Democrats on the panel sought a briefing from deputy U.S. intelligence chief, Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden, soon after Bush confirmed the existence of the surveillance program.
"Gen. Hayden said he was prepared to brief the full committee but our request was disapproved by White House Chief of Staff Andy Card," Harman said in a statement issued by her office.
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said she was not aware of any conversations about a possible intelligence briefing in December. A spokeswoman for Hayden declined to comment.
But Harman’s remarks could suggest a previously undisclosed readiness by top intelligence officials to speak about the secret program with a broader audience of lawmakers.
The administration has fully briefed only eight lawmakers in the House and Senate about the program’s operations up to now, saying wider disclosure could pose security risks.
Bush acknowledged publicly on December 17 that he authorized the National Security Agency after the September 11 attacks to eavesdrop without a court warrant on international telephone calls and e-mails between Americans and others suspected of ties with al Qaeda.
The program has raised concerns among Democrats and some Republicans that Bush may have overstepped his constitutional authority and even violated federal law by not briefing the full House and Senate intelligence panels about the operation.
Two weeks ago, the White House bowed to mounting pressure in Congress and provided some details of the eavesdropping program to the full House and Senate intelligence committees.
But the White House has also pressed Republican lawmakers to stave off calls for full congressional investigations.
The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence has put off until March 7 a vote sought by Democrats that would authorize such an inquiry. House Republicans have also clashed over the need for Congress to undertake a full-scale probe.
Perino said the White House was open to ideas in Congress, particularly a proposal by Republican Sen. Mike DeWine of Ohio to create special House and Senate intelligence subcommittees to oversee the program’s operations.
"The administration has signaled that it is now shifting course. A senior White House official told me this weekend that it is important to put the program on solid legal footing and improve congressional oversight," Harman said.
"This is welcome news, but it is not a substitute for fully briefing the committees on the operations of the program."
(Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick)