PANEL IN SENATE BACKS BUSH PLAN FOR EAVESDROPPING
By ERIC LICHTBLAU and KATE
Published: September 14,
WASHINGTON, Sept. 13 — The White House took a critical step on Wednesday in its effort
to get Congressional blessing for President Bush’s domestic eavesdropping program, but it ran into increasingly fierce
resistance from leading Republicans over its plan to try terror
The mixed results signaled the tough road the White House faces in trying
to sell the two key planks in its national security agenda to sometimes skeptical Congressional Republicans less than two
months before the midterm elections.
Democrats have allowed Republicans to fight
among themselves over the issues, and appear willing to allow the issues to come to a vote rather than risk charges of political
obstructionism in an election season.
The White House has turned its focus to Capitol
Hill as part of a broad push to shift the public debate toward national security and away from Iraq. After kicking off the campaign in a series of recent speeches, Mr. Bush is
scheduled to visit Capitol Hill on Thursday morning to rally support for his proposals.
On the domestic eavesdropping program, strong
White House lobbying began to pay dividends on Wednesday as the Senate Judiciary Committee approved on a party-line vote two
legislative approaches favored by the White House, along with a third the Bush administration opposes. The program would allow
the National Security Agency to eavesdrop without a warrant on the international phone calls and e-mail of people in the United States.
But negotiations between Capitol Hill and the
White House broke down as three Republican senators crucial to passage of the legislation hardened their stance against a
White House plan that would reinterpret a main provision of the Geneva Conventions.
Senator John W. Warner, Republican of Virginia,
the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said the committee would vote Thursday in a closed session on an alternative
that he and his two chief allies — Senators Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John
McCain of Arizona — have championed, even if the White
House refuses to go along with them. The senators have said changes to the American interpretation of the provision of the
Geneva Conventions, known as Common Article 3, would undermine the nation’s international credibility and open the way
for other countries to treat captured American troops at their whim.
“This is not about November 2006. It
is not about your election. It is about those who take risks to defend America,”
Mr. Graham said.
The administration pushed back, convening a
conference call in which John D. Negroponte, the director of national intelligence, described the Senate alternative as unacceptable.
Mr. Negroponte said the plan would impose intolerable limits on any interrogation methods American intelligence officers might
use against future terror suspects held by the Central Intelligence Agency in secret overseas prisons.
Dan Bartlett, a senior aide to Mr. Bush, said
the dispute with the Senate Republicans “may require us to go our different ways for now and try to come back in conference.”
The House appears on track to endorse the White
House proposal, with the House Armed Services Committee voting overwhelmingly on Wednesday in favor of a bill that looks much
like the president’s.
The White House political strategy in the past
week has been twofold: first, putting Mr. Bush in the public spotlight with a string of national security speeches, and now,
trying to put Democrats in a box by forcing them to take a stand and vote on Mr. Bush’s authority to run two of his
most controversial antiterror programs.
But Senators Warner, McCain and Graham appeared
to be providing cover for the Democrats, allowing them to stay on the sidelines while the three senators, respected Republicans
with distinguished military records, take on the White House.
“We think that this is a sincere effort,
based on principle, by Senators Warner, McCain and Graham, to come up with the best legislation they can,” said Senator
Jack Reed, Democrat of Rhode Island and a member of the Armed Services Committee.
Asked whether Democrats were worried that the
Republicans might yield to the White House, Mr. Reed said: “I haven’t seen any evidence of that yet. What I’ve
seen is that they’re approaching this looking at the substance, not just over weeks and months, but what’s in
the best interests of the United States,
what’s in the best interests of American military personnel who might years from now be held.”
Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, has
been pushing the administration’s point of view, and Senator Bill Frist of Tennessee,
the majority leader, has said he may bring the president’s legislation to the floor, rather than the one backed by the
Mr. Warner and his allies have warned that
if that happens, they will introduce amendments to make the president’s legislation look like theirs. The senators have
military leaders on their side, and in a letter sent to the Armed Services Committee on Thursday, 27 retired military leaders
urged Congress to reject the White House proposal to reinterpret the definition of Common Article 3.
The letter said the proposal “poses a
grave threat to American service members, now and in future wars,” noting that American troops are now deployed in areas
where the article is their only source of protection if they are captured.
“If degradation, humiliation, physical
and mental brutalization of prisoners is decriminalized or considered permissible under a restrictive interpretation of Common
Article 3,’’ the letter warned, “we will forfeit all credible objections should such barbaric practices
be inflicted upon American prisoners.”
Skip to next paragraph The administration had also faced resistance over the N.S.A. wiretapping program. The Democrats had bottled up the administration’s
proposals, saying Congress was being forced to legislate “in the dark” about a secret program that few members
had been briefed on. They have repeatedly used procedural maneuvers to block the proposals from coming to a vote in the Judiciary
Committee, drawing accusations of obstructionism from Republicans.
But Democrats, who appeared to realize the
risk of being accused of thwarting debate on national security matters, did not stand in the way of the committee vote on
With Republicans united in support, the panel
approved on a 10-to-8 vote a hotly debated plan drawn in negotiations with the White House by Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the committee chairman. The plan would allow a secret
court to rule on the constitutionality of the wiretapping program. It would also implicitly recognize the president’s
constitutional authority to gather foreign intelligence, a concession Democrats and civil rights advocates contend would expand
the president’s authority to eavesdrop on Americans without a warrant.
The panel also approved a proposal by Senator
Mike DeWine, Republican of Ohio, that would require the administration to notify Congress when it conducted wiretaps without
Democrats claimed a partial victory on the
wiretapping issue when they won Judiciary Committee approval of another measure that could effectively ban the security agency’s
That plan, drafted by Senator Dianne Feinstein,
Democrat of California, would affirm that the foreign intelligence law passed by Congress in 1978, requiring court approval
for eavesdropping, as the “exclusive” means of authorizing wiretaps in the United States against suspected terrorists
Democrats succeeded in getting two Republican
moderates, Mr. Specter and Mr. Graham, both of whom had voiced concerns over the legal aspects of the wiretapping program,
to vote in favor of the proposal and send it to the full Senate.
That set the stage for the unusual spectacle
of the Judiciary Committee — and its chairman — supporting two proposals that many lawmakers said would effectively
nullify each other if passed.