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Rockefeller Questions NSA's Authority
Yahoo News/AP
By KATHERINE SHRADER, Associated Press Writer
February 17, 2006

WASHINGTON - The top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee wants the panel to look into whether the National Security Agency was eavesdropping without proper authority in the weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks

It was one of the questions outlined by Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., in writing this week in a proposal to investigate.

The Bush administration has repeatedly said intelligence officials acted lawfully.

As a leader on the intelligence committee, Rockefeller is one of a select group of lawmakers who has been briefed more fully on the program, but he and others still have a number of questions they want answered.

Rockefeller wants the full committee to understand the NSA's activities — "including any warrantless surveillance" — that took place between the suicide hijackings in 2001 and the initiation of President Bush's controversial surveillance program.

Rockefeller also wants the panel to investigate how that may have supplemented intelligence collected and analyzed before the attacks. That line of inquiry is the first of 13 questions Rockefeller circulated to committee members as part of his motion to investigate.

More members of Congress are also expressing interest in weighing in on the program. Sen. John Warner (news, bio, voting record), R-Va., told reporters that he's had conversations with members of the "Gang of 14" — centrist senators who defused a showdown over judicial filibusters last year — about whether they should consider reviewing laws relating to the president's program. But, he said, they haven't reached a decision.

Warner also would not say whether he personally believes Bush acted within his authority.

"All I know, there's considerable doubt out there," said Warner, who as Senate Armed Services Committee chairman can attend intelligence panel meetings.

Rockefeller asked his committee to vote on his investigative proposal Thursday, but Intelligence Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and other Republicans instead voted to adjourn a closed-door session without considering the investigation.

Roberts said the committee needed more time to work with the White House on further briefings for Congress and possible legislative fixes to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. If the negotiations fail, Roberts said the panel could consider Rockefeller's motion at a meeting next month.

Rockefeller also wants the committee to study how intelligence collected as part of the NSA program is retained, the program's operational procedures, concerns raised by federal judges, and technology used in the operations.

NSA spokesman Don Weber said he had no information to provide.

The precise details of the presidential authorization, including the date, have not been made public. In the weeks after Sept. 11, Bush has said he authorized surveillance — without warrants — of Americans whose international calls and e-mails may be linked to al-Qaida.

In a press conference last month, Gen. Michael Hayden, the No. 2 U.S. intelligence official and former NSA director, said he introduced the new surveillance authority to key employees in October 2001.

"I told them that we were going to carry out this program and not go one step further," Hayden said.

Bush has seen Republican congressional support for his eavesdropping program erode in the last two months, but Republican leaders have managed — for now — to stave off full-scale investigations.

White House officials originally said congressional debate could damage national security, and the bar for any legislative changes would be high. But a day after striking the agreement with Roberts to work on legislation and more briefings for his committee, the White House appeared more open to congressional debate.

"The president believes that he has the authority necessary," White House spokesman Trent Duffy said Friday. "But we're willing to work with the Congress if they feel that further codification of that is needed."

The House Intelligence Committee has also been working on a list of questions that it plans to have answered in writing or in hearings in the coming weeks.

House Intelligence Chairman Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich., and other committee members have agreed to look at whether the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act needs modernizing, his spokesman Jamal Ware said Friday.

Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., who chairs a subcommittee that oversees the NSA, said she does not expect a committee vote to open an inquiry, but members were conducting a "workmanlike" review as part of their regular oversight.

Associated Press writer Liz Sidoti contributed to this report.