Wiretap, Tribunal Bills Get Senatorial Shuffle

Times Staff Writers

The White House and its allies on Monday chipped away at objections to proposed legislation for its warrantless surveillance activities, winning new support among reluctant Senate members and hoping for passage of the measure before this weekend’s congressional recess.

Meanwhile, new resistance to a compromise proposal for detaining and prosecuting terrorism suspects cropped up when Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) said the measure improperly tried to prevent federal courts from hearing challenges brought by detainees to the government’s right to imprison them.

Specter’s plans to amend the legislation could complicate the GOP’s hopes of sending a military tribunal bill to President Bush for signing before the November elections. Specter said he would seek to amend the bill when it comes to the Senate floor for a vote this week to give detainees the right to challenge their detention in court. He is expected to be joined by a number of Democrats. The compromise continued to draw criticism.


The tribunal bill is the result of a fragile compromise worked out last week by the White House and a number of Specter’s GOP colleagues. One of those, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, said that he “probably has the votes” to pass the compromise legislation.

“The way you regulate running a prison in a time of war is not a judicial function,” Graham said. “It’s a military function.”

The proposed legislation on warrantless surveillance won the support of three Republican senators who had joined Democrats in expressing concern about the bill’s scope and sweep.

GOP Sens. Larry E. Craig of Idaho, John E. Sununu of New Hampshire and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska announced that they had reached agreement with the Bush administration on changes to the surveillance bill.

The bill would constitute an official congressional endorsement of the once-secret surveillance program under which the National Security Agency monitors international phone calls and e-mails in the U.S. involving terrorism suspects.

A surveillance bill introduced Friday by Senate GOP leaders, refining an earlier proposal, would make it clear that the president, in some cases, had the authority under the Constitution to unilaterally order surveillance without a judge’s approval.

Craig, Sununu and Murkowski said in a joint statement Monday that the changes would provide “the tools necessary to combat terrorism” while protecting constitutional rights and ensuring that Congress had “authority to regulate and provide oversight throughout the surveillance process.”

Civil liberties groups, Democrats and others said the surveillance legislation still amounted to a fundamental rewriting of a 1978 law, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, that set up a special federal court to review wiretapping in terrorism and espionage cases. The legislation would give the president the right to order surveillance without warrants, which critics said would eviscerate the intent of the original law.

“Ultimately, the legislation would still ratify an unlawful surveillance program,” said Democratic Sens. Russell D. Feingold of Wisconsin, Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, and Ken Salazar of Colorado.

The surveillance legislation also was assailed by a group of former national security officials, including two former FBI directors, William H. Webster and William S. Sessions.

The group said that the legislation strayed too far from the original intent of FISA and gave the president too much power to decide when to conduct warrantless surveillance of Americans or foreigners.

“We strongly urge that the requirements of FISA remain just that -- requirements, not options,” the group said in a prepared statement.