After seven weeks of refusing to provide Congress with details of its secret domestic spying program, the White House changed course Wednesday and began to describe the operations of the controversial surveillance to members of the House and Senate intelligence committees.
The decision by the White House to brief Congress on the program, and not just its legal underpinnings, came as members of President Bush’s own political party continued to press for a fuller explanation of why the administration chose to bypass current laws that require warrants before spying on people in the United States.
It appeared to be a sudden reversal, coming at midday hours after two top officials -- White House spokesman Scott McClellan in the morning and Vice President Dick Cheney the evening before -- gave no sign of budging in conversations with reporters.
“This is a very positive development,” said Rep. Heather A. Wilson (R-N.M.), a key member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, who had pressed the matter in repeated discussions with White House officials. “Serious questioning, sharing of information and reviewing of this program began this afternoon.”
Wilson, a former Air Force officer who served on the National Security Council in the administration of Bush’s father, heads the subcommittee that oversees the National Security Agency, which conducted the surveillance.
She said her concerns about the National Security Agency program grew after Monday’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, in which she said Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales offered a “weak” legal rationale for the program.
“I believe, as I have believed all along, that we have to start from the facts, and the place to get those facts is in the House Intelligence Committee,” Wilson told a news conference. “The checks and balances in our system of government are very important, and it’s those checks and balances that are going on and being executed now.”
The House committee was briefed Wednesday afternoon; the Senate committee is to be briefed today.
Rep. Jane Harman of Venice, the top Democrat on the House committee, said the briefing lasted more than three hours and was spent mostly in a description of how the program operated. It was given by Gonzales and Air Force Gen. Michael V. Hayden, the deputy director of national intelligence and a former National Security Agency director.
Neither Wilson nor Harman would discuss details of the program, though Wilson described the briefing as “very forthcoming and very helpful.”
“This is a welcome thaw,” Harman said. “After Monday’s hearing, it became clear that there was strong and serious bipartisan concern, and the drumbeat wasn’t going to get softer -- it got louder.”
White House officials usually deny changing policies, and they did so again Wednesday. White House spokeswoman Dana Perino insisted that the decision to brief the two intelligence committees was neither a reversal nor a reaction to Gonzales’ testimony.
Perino described the presentation to the intelligence committees as “some additional information to give the committee members a greater understanding of how carefully tailored, monitored and structured the terrorist surveillance program is.”
Harman said the two officials provided somewhat less detail than during briefings for the congressional leadership, but described the presentation as “a good start.”
“It was the first chance our membership has had to have a clue” about the program, Harman said. The existence of the program was reported by the New York Times in mid-December.
Bush has said that after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, he ordered the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on international phone calls and e-mails of people in the United States with suspected ties to terrorist groups.
The National Security Agency is normally forbidden to eavesdrop on people in the United States without first getting a warrant from a special intelligence court.
The administration has argued that the law establishing the courts -- the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, enacted in 1978 -- is insufficient and cumbersome in quickly authorizing wiretaps in “hot pursuit” of suspected terrorist communications.
But members of Congress from both parties have said that the president should have sought changes to the law instead of ignoring it.
“The president is the commander in chief of the military. He executes the laws and he administers the programs,” Wilson said. “In the Congress, we authorize programs, we set up agencies, we appropriate funds and we oversee the execution of programs. Those are very different roles under our Constitution, but that constitutional structure has kept us safe and free and the strongest country in the world for a very long time.”
Wilson said Wednesday’s briefing was too preliminary for her to reach a conclusion about the legality of the program. Harman has said she supports the program but that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act needs to be changed to accommodate it.
Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Wednesday that he was in the process of drafting legislation that would require the administration to get a ruling from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court on the constitutionality of the program.
“The president should have all the tools he needs to fight terrorism, but we also want to maintain our civil liberties,” Specter said on the Senate floor.
Bush has described the program as the interception of communications between terrorist operatives overseas and people inside the United States. But members of Congress have questioned the criteria for determining whether one party is a terrorist operative, how intrusive surveillance may be, and how long it is stored.
The White House has given periodic briefings to the so-called Gang of 8 -- the Republican and Democratic leaders of the House, the Senate and the two intelligence committees. White House officials have argued that those briefings were adequate to comply with their legal responsibility to inform Congress about intelligence operations.
Lawmakers from both parties, including Wilson, have argued that the law requires briefings for the full intelligence committees.
“Until this morning, they were reluctant to brief beyond the Gang of 8,” Wilson said. “I think my willingness to publicly say that they really needed to had an impact.”
Perino said the White House was not changing its policy of revealing the details of the program only to the eight legislators.
“We wanted to give the members the best understanding possible about the procedures of the program without violating our principle of keeping the full details of the program limited to the appropriate members of Congress, which is the Gang of 8,” she said.
Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, has resisted calls from Democrats and some Republicans to hold either public or closed hearings on the controversy.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), a member of the Senate judiciary and intelligence committees, said the law and common sense required that the full Intelligence Committee be briefed.
“For the Intelligence Committee not to be informed at this stage is sheer folly,” Feinstein said. “The president has spoken about this program in the State of the Union and other places, yet not one of us has been able to ask about details, and with a program like this, the devil is in the details.”