A domestic eavesdropping program that has become a source of controversy for the Bush administration might no longer be useful in tracking terrorist suspects in the United States because of the extensive public attention the operation has received, senior Republican lawmakers said Sunday.
The chairmen of the House and Senate intelligence committees questioned the viability of the secret program in the aftermath of public disclosures that the lawmakers said had probably prompted Al Qaeda operatives to alter their communication patterns.
“The problem now is the program is really of questionable value,” said Rep. Peter Hoekstra (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. “It’s been across the media for the last 50 days. Does anyone really believe that after 50 days of having this program on the front page of our newspapers ... that Al Qaeda has not changed the way that it communicates?”
Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, was pessimistic about the operation’s effectiveness since the New York Times reported its existence in December.
“We’re to the point where we’re about to lose the capability,” Roberts said in an appearance alongside Hoekstra and other lawmakers on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Both lawmakers said they supported the program, and described it as crucial to the nation’s efforts to prevent future terrorist attacks in the United States.
But their comments could put new pressure on the White House to defend the operation’s usefulness, and on federal investigators to determine who leaked information about what had been among the most closely guarded secrets in the U.S. intelligence community.
The program was launched after the Sept. 11 attacks, when President Bush authorized the National Security Agency to monitor international phone calls and e-mails of people in the United States without requiring the agency to obtain warrants.
Administration officials have said the surveillance is allowed only in cases involving people suspected of being linked to Al Qaeda.
But many Democrats and some Republicans have questioned the legality and scope of the domestic spying operation, saying Bush did not have the authority to sidestep a law passed in the 1970s to protect Americans from surveillance by U.S. spy agencies.
Leading Democrats and some Republicans have called for an overhaul of the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that would allow the electronic monitoring of terrorist suspects to continue but would subject such operations to the review of a court.
“I still support the program, but it needs to be on a sounder legal footing,” Rep. Jane Harman of Venice, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said on “Meet the Press.”
Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) said Sunday that the law should be amended to fix any problems that might slow surveillance operations, but he was sharply critical of the administration’s rationale for bypassing the FISA court.
“Any president can’t just unilaterally, arbitrarily say, ‘We believe we have the authority and the power, and you go around a law that has worked very well,’ ” Hagel said on CNN’s “Late Edition.”
The administration has resisted such calls and has ramped up its defense of the program. Bush described the operation in his State of the Union address as “essential to the security of America.”
Last week, senior administration officials briefed the House and Senate intelligence committees on the program, reversing a previous position in which the White House had refused to provide information about the operation to all but a handful of legislators.
At the same time, lawmakers and senior intelligence officials have called for an investigation into the source of the leak about the NSA operation.
In recent congressional testimony, CIA Director Porter J. Goss said that he had contacted the Justice Department and that he hoped reporters would face questioning. “It is my aim -- it is my hope -- that we will witness a grand jury investigation with reporters present, being asked to reveal who is leaking this information,” Goss said.