Maine senator Olympia Snowe is leading the charge to find out why President Bush authorized spying on US citizens without bothering to seek the approval of the secret federal court that generally rubber-stamps requests for the surveillance of Americans.
After a New York Times report that Bush allowed the National Security Agency (NSA) to intercept phone calls and emails between US citizens and people overseas who have been linked to terrorism, Snowe and four other members of the Senate Intelligence Committee called for a congressional investigation.
The NSA is charged with intelligence-gathering outside the country, but can seek warrants from a secret federal court, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court, to spy on American citizens in the US.
Bush’s order, in effect since 2002, has drawn concern from judges on the court over whether information gathered without a warrant has been used later to justify other intelligence operations in the US, the Washington Post reported last week.
Citing a second-hand report from anonymous informants, the Post reported that the court granted 1754 warrants in 2004 and rejected none.
One of the FISA court’s 11 judges, James Robertson, resigned, apparently in protest, but will keep his seat on the US District Court for the District of Columbia.
Snowe, another Republican senator, and three Democrats have called for a joint inquiry by the Senate’s judiciary and intelligence committees. Judiciary committee chairman Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania has said he will begin those hearings in January.
Senator Susan Collins, also a Republican and the chairman of the homeland-security committee, is also concerned about the situation and has asked for a briefing from the NSA, as well as a congressional investigation. Her committee does not have jurisdiction over the NSA.
Bush administration officials have repeatedly said Bush did not break any laws by approving the surveillance of US citizens without the agreement of a judge.
The revelations about spying hindered the passage of a revision to the USA PATRIOT Act, whose name is an acronym for “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism.”
The House approved a four-year extension to the act, with some revisions, on December 14, over the objections of Maine representatives Tom Allen and Mike Michaud.
Snowe and Collins sought a three-month extension of the existing law, to allow lawmakers to make more revisions to protect civil liberties. When a compromise was introduced — over Bush’s objections — to extend the law for six months, Snowe and Collins both agreed, but the extension was reduced to five weeks in a last-minute exchange between the House and Senate, with most members of both bodies already at home for the holidays.
On another front, when Snowe and Collins are asked their position on drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, they will be able to answer, John Kerry-like, “I voted for it before I voted against it.”
Last week, both Republican senators from Maine voted to end a filibuster against a defense-spending bill that also included legalization of drilling in ANWR.
But when the filibuster held, Collins and others moved to get ANWR out of the defense bill. When Alaska senator Ted Stevens, a Republican who has championed drilling in the 19-million-acre preserve, agreed, Snowe and Collins both voted with the 93-0 majority to pass the defense bill, and returned to their long-held positions of opposing drilling in the refuge. Maine’s Democratic representatives were split on the matter, with Tom Allen voting for the conjoined defense-and-drilling bill December 19, and Mike Michaud opposing it.