Hearing on surveillance program may spur Republicans to move quickly on Patriot Act

If the White House and the GOP-led Congress do not strike a deal soon on reauthorizing the USA Patriot Act, President Bush’s influence on the controversial bill could diminish after the Senate Judiciary Committee holds hearings on the nation’s domestic surveillance program.

The hearings are providing additional motivation for congressional Republicans to renew the Patriot Act by Feb. 3. If no deal is reached, the Patriot Act would probably be extended for a short amount of time while lawmakers continue discussions.

The Judiciary Committee has scheduled its first hearing for Monday, and it is expected to attract intense media attention. The hearings could validate the call for increased checks on the executive branch’s power to police terrorism. If Congress is unsuccessful in renewing the Patriot Act before Feb. 6.

Some proponents of the entire Patriot Act are wary that if the hearings are unfavorable for the White House they will provide legislators political cover to add more privacy protections to the Patriot Act — including expansion of oversight powers for federal courts and the earlier sunsetting of certain surveillance provisions.

The hearings will showcase a number of senators from both parties who have raised concerns on the surveillance program, including Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.).

Jonathan Turley, a professor of law at George Washington University, said that those who endorsed greater latitude for the president are likely fearful that the Patriot Act renewal would be “sucked into the vortex” created by the hearings.

James Carafano, a senior fellow for homeland security with the Heritage Foundation, acknowledged that the hearings could lead to additional language in the Patriot Act checking federal surveillance powers if it becomes connected with the domestic program run by the National Security Agency (NSA).

However, he added that if the case presented by the president is accurate — that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) did not allow for quick enough gathering of information regarding terrorists — then the hearings could provide momentum for the White House on the Patriot Act.

The failure of the vote to end the bipartisan filibuster of the Patriot Act has been attributed by some political observers to The New York Times’s reporting that the president approved surveillance of communications between people inside and outside the United States, without authorization by a foreign-intelligence court. Congress later passed a one-month extension, preventing 16 surveillance provisions from expiring on Dec. 31.

Republican and Democratic members of the Judiciary Committee have spoken out against the president, with Democrats showing a willingness to link the surveillance program to the Patriot Act. Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), ranking member of the Judiciary Committee, and Joseph Biden (D-Del.) both cited the NSA program on the Senate floor when calling for the extension of the Patriot Act in December.

Specter has voiced “grave doubts” over the program’s legality and stated that prior knowledge by Republican and Democratic members of congressional intelligence committees does not provide an adequate check over the president. He added, “You can’t have the administration and a select number of members alter the law.”

Sens. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), Mike DeWine (R-Ohio) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), have also spoken out against the program. Graham, when asked whether the president was authorized to circumvent the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court said, “I don’t know of any legal basis to go around that.”

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who is scheduled to testify Monday, has stated that the president’s constitutional powers and the congressional vote authorizing the use of force after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks validated the surveillance program.

Opponents assert that the vote did not authorize domestic surveillance, and the lack of judicial approval violated current law and the Constitution.

Norm Ornstein, resident scholar with the American Enterprise Institute, said that the pressure on both the White House and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) to minimize the political damage stemming from the surveillance program could ensure renewal of the Patriot Act before Friday’s deadline.

Carafano contends both parties are equally interested in ensuring that the Patriot Act will not expire or require another short-term extension.

A recent New York Times/CBS poll showed a 68 percent approval rate in terms of surveillance of those declared suspicious but only a 28 percent approval rate for “ordinary Americans on a regular basis.”