Friday, April 28, 2006

KUDOS Senator Specter

- Jennifer A. Dlouhy, Hearst Newspapers
Friday, April 28, 2006

Washington -- Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., the head of the Judiciary Committee, complained Thursday that there hasn't been enough outrage over President Bush's domestic surveillance program and threatened to push legislation that would kill it.

Specter said he won't seek an immediate vote on his plan to terminate funding for the domestic surveillance program, but he wants to wake up the White House and stop the president from "walking all over Congress."

And, Specter said, he wants to revive a flagging national debate about whether the eavesdropping program violates the Constitution and the federal law that requires a court to approve spying on U.S. citizens.

"Where's the outrage?" an exasperated Specter said Thursday. "There is none, except on a few editorial pages. ... I have been trying very hard to get some public focus on this issue."

If successful, Specter's proposal to stop funding the program would kill it until Sept. 30, the eve of the current fiscal year.

"The president is walking all over Congress," Specter said. "If we are to maintain our institutional prerogative, (this) may be the only way we can do it."

Specter said Bush ran afoul of a 1978 law when he authorized the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on international phone calls and e-mails of Americans in the United States without first getting warrants from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 requires the secret court to approve NSA surveillance of U.S. citizens.

Specter said people are apathetic about the domestic surveillance controversy because they believe it's someone else's problem.

"People don't think they're among the tappees," Specter said. "They think it's somebody else's civil rights which are involved."

Lawmakers also haven't gotten angry enough, Specter said. As a result, Congress has so far abandoned its duty under the Constitution to provide a check on the executive branch.

"We have a Congress which candidly is more concerned about re-election and fundraising and who controls the House and the Senate than in asserting constitutional prerogatives," Specter said. That's not the way it ought to be."

Administration officials defending Bush's decision to bypass the court argue that the president can order the surveillance as part of his inherent constitutional powers as commander in chief and by a congressional resolution passed after the 2001 attacks that authorized the use of military force.

"Historically, I can't think of a more important confrontation this country has faced," Specter said. "Who knows how many listening devices and who knows how many U.S. telephones (are being used and monitored) in violation of the FISA Act?"

Meanwhile, Democrats on the Judiciary Committee delayed action on three proposals that would change the rules for foreign intelligence wiretaps or make it easier for people to bring civil lawsuits challenging the eavesdropping. One of the stalled measures -- which would force the FISA court to rule on whether the program should continue -- is sponsored by Specter.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said that before Congress rewrites federal statutes governing the surveillance, lawmakers should wait for the conclusion of a Senate Intelligence Committee investigation of the spy program.

"To pass legislation now is like a doctor diagnosing the patient without seeing the patient or reviewing the records," Feinstein said. "History cautions us against rushing into this issue and getting it wrong."

Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., insisted that if Congress were to make changes now, they would be "legislating in the dark."

And, Feingold warned, even if Congress passed a new law curtailing the domestic surveillance program, there's no reason to believe Bush would follow the restrictions.

"We would do this without any assurance that the president will abide by what we pass," Feingold said. Before making any changes, Feingold said, "the president needs to come to us and make the case that the current law is inadequate."

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