The White House, in an abrupt reversal, has agreed to let the full Senate and House of Representatives intelligence committees review President George W. Bush’s domestic spying program, lawmakers said on Tuesday.
The Republican chairmen of the Senate and House panels disclosed the shift two days before a Senate confirmation hearing for Air Force Gen. Michael Hayden as the new CIA director, which is expected to be dominated by concern over the program.
The chairmen said separately that Bush had agreed to full committee oversight of his Terrorist Surveillance Program rather than the more limited briefings allowed up to now.
The White House, under political pressure, did agree to conduct a set of briefings for the two full committees earlier this year, but those sessions did not disclose operational details about the eavesdropping.
Initiated after the September 11 attacks, the program lets the National Security Agency eavesdrop without a court warrant on international phone calls and e-mails made by U.S. citizens if one party is suspected to have links with terrorism.
It has stirred an outcry among rights groups and lawmakers who believe Bush overstepped his constitutional authority.
The White House has sought to avoid full committee oversight by limiting briefings to subcommittees from each panel. Initially, the administration shared program details only with the chairmen and vice chairmen of the committees and party leaders in the House and Senate.
“It became apparent that in order to have a fully informed confirmation hearing, all members of my committee needed to know the full width and breadth of the president’s program,” Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, who heads the 15-member Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said in a statement.
Democrats, who have long pushed for full hearings, said the change would bring the White House into compliance with the National Security Act of 1947, which requires the executive branch to keep Congress informed on intelligence matters.
“The White House, for the first time, is showing signs that they are serious about oversight,” said Democrat Sen. John Rockefeller of West Virginia, the Senate panel’s vice chairman.
A full Senate committee briefing was scheduled for Wednesday afternoon. Full oversight was expected to replace subcommittee reviews that have been in place since earlier this year, said committee staff members from both chambers.
Hayden, who was the program’s architect as NSA director from 1999 to 2005, was expected to face a blizzard of questions on NSA spying at a Thursday confirmation hearing before Roberts’ committee. Republicans and Democrats have said Hayden’s confirmation would depend on his answers would be.
A congressional aide who deals with intelligence matters said the change in policy on NSA oversight would allow Hayden to speak about the program during the classified segment of his confirmation hearing.
The aide predicted that broader oversight could also pave the way for bringing the program under federal law. Hayden has signaled possible support for this during meetings with members of Congress.
Rep. Pete Hoekstra of Michigan, chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said full oversight would eliminate what he called politically driven rumors.
Bush has defended the program by saying the intelligence activities he authored are lawful and necessary to protect Americans from further harm.
(Additional reporting by Andy Sullivan)
© Reuters 2006