Senate Republicans blocked a proposed investigation of President Bush’s domestic spying operation Thursday as the chairman of the Intelligence Committee said he had reached an agreement with the White House to pursue legislation establishing clearer rules for the controversial program.
But Senate aides described the discussions with the White House as very preliminary. And angry Democrats expressed skepticism over the negotiations, with some describing them as a ploy to protect the Bush administration and the highly classified surveillance operation from congressional scrutiny.
The political maneuvering underscored the stakes surrounding a secret intelligence-gathering program that the White House describes as crucial to preventing future terrorist attacks in the United States, but which critics see as unconstitutional and an abuse of executive power.
The tactics by Republicans on the Intelligence Committee leave the surveillance operations in place while giving the White House time to influence the debate on Capitol Hill. Separately, the House Intelligence Committee is considering its own inquiry. Among members of the panel raising questions about the program is Rep. Heather A. Wilson (R-N.M.).
Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), after a closed-door meeting with Senate committee members, said the panel had decided to adjourn without considering a Democratic proposal to begin an investigation of the program, which is run by the National Security Agency, an intelligence agency that operates eavesdropping posts around the globe.
Roberts, the panel chairman, said the vote was put off because the White House had “committed to legislation and has agreed to brief more Intelligence Committee members on the nature of the surveillance program.”
White House officials confirmed a new willingness to consider legislative fixes, after weeks of insisting that no congressional action was necessary.
“We maintain that the president does not need additional congressional authority,” White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said. But she said the administration was now willing to discuss a GOP proposal that contained “some good legislative concepts that would not undermine the president’s ability to protect Americans.”
Perino was referring to a proposal by Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio) that would specifically authorize the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on international calls involving U.S. residents and suspected terrorists overseas without first obtaining a court warrant.
The White House has said Bush has the authority to approve such operations to protect the nation. But critics say the program violates a 1978 statute -- the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA -- that outlawed domestic eavesdropping without approval from a special intelligence court.
The administration’s new willingness to consider legislation appeared to be enough to appease several Republican lawmakers who had expressed misgivings about the domestic intelligence collection and were in a position to cast deciding votes on whether to launch a Senate inquiry.
A senior Republican aide said that before the meeting, Sens. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine) and Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) told Roberts that they were prepared to vote for an investigation if the committee did not agree to work toward legislation.
The “agreement in principle” to discuss the DeWine proposal was enough to persuade the senators to postpone the vote on an inquiry. But the issue was far from resolved.
“This is just a starting point,” the aide said.
Snowe indicated Thursday that the White House had bought a limited amount of time. In a statement, she called for “congressional and judicial review over a program that currently has none,” and said the administration had until March 7 -- when a follow-up Intelligence Committee meeting is scheduled -- to “demonstrate its commitment to avoiding a constitutional deadlock.”
The spying program was authorized by Bush in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. Before the operation was exposed late last year, it had been one of the most closely guarded secrets in the intelligence community, with the administration providing briefings to only a handful of senior lawmakers.
Senate Democrats denounced Republicans for delaying the vote on an investigation. Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, the ranking Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, said the party-line vote to adjourn the meeting before taking up the proposal was “another stalling tactic.”
“Today, the Senate Intelligence Committee once again abdicated its responsibility to oversee the intelligence activities of the United States,” Rockefeller said.
Roberts defended the decision to block the vote, saying he believed an investigation would hurt an intelligence operation that he described as “vital for the protection of the American people.” He offered few specifics about his discussions with the White House on possible legislation. Roberts’ spokeswoman, Sarah Ross Little, described those talks as in their early stages.
“There’s nothing specific,” Little said. “The White House has agreed and committed to work with Congress on an expanded role in oversight and some sort of legislative solution. But there is nothing particular or specific beyond that.”
Other Republican aides said no legislative language had been shared with the White House. But White House and congressional officials said the discussions were focusing on DeWine’s proposal, which also would create a new subcommittee on the Senate Intelligence Committee solely to monitor the National Security Agency program.
Critics have called the DeWine approach inadequate.
“To simply exclude communications from the coverage of FISA and allow secret wiretapping without a warrant ... would be a clear violation of the 4th Amendment,” Kate Martin, director of national security studies at George Washington University, said in an e-mail message.
Meanwhile on Thursday, the Justice Department was ordered by a federal judge to respond within 20 days to requests by a civil liberties group for documents about the National Security Agency program.
The Electronic Privacy Information Center had sued the department under the Freedom of Information Act seeking the release of the documents.
In a setback for Bush, U.S. District Judge Henry Kennedy ordered the department to finish processing the group’s requests and produce or identify all records within 20 days. A Justice Department spokesman said the agency was reviewing the ruling.