By Alexander Bolton - 06/08/06 12:00 AM EDT
Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) rebuked Vice President Cheney yesterday for persuading several Republican senators to oppose subpoenaing corporate executives over their role in the National Security Agency (NSA) phone surveillance program.
In a strongly worded letter, the Judiciary Committee chairman wrote, “I was advised yesterday that you had called Republican members of the Judiciary Committee lobbying them to oppose any Judiciary Committee hearing, even a closed one, with the telephone companies.
“I was further advised that you told those Republican members that the telephone companies had been instructed not to provide any information to the Committee as they were prohibited from disclosing classified information.
“I was surprised, to say the least, that you sought to influence, really determine, the action of the Committee without calling me first, or at least calling me at some point. This was especially perplexing since we both attended the Republican Senators caucus lunch yesterday and I walked directly in front of you on at least two occasions en route from the buffet to my table.”
Specter’s reproach of Cheney shows how thin the patience of many Republicans has worn with Cheney’s defense of presidential prerogatives and war powers. They have clashed over how much oversight Congress should have of classified intelligence operations.
The topic has been especially controversial since it was disclosed last month that telephone companies gave the NSA phone records of tens of millions of Americans.
Specter was confident Tuesday morning that he had sufficient Republican support on his panel to vote that day on issuing subpoenas to phone companies that have cooperated with the NSA, said Senate sources. But GOP senators’ support evaporated after Cheney intervened.
Cheney told several GOP senators Tuesday why the phone companies should not tell them about the program. A survey by committee staff had indicated that GOP senators would have otherwise supported the subpoenas.
After Cheney spoke with individual senators at a Tuesday Senate Republican Conference lunch, Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) raised concerns about Specter’s plans. They voiced their concerns at a private meeting of Republican panel members immediately before a public hearing Tuesday afternoon.
Specter opened the hearing by saying he would not subpoena the companies because his committee had been “advised, informally, that [the companies] will be precluded from providing any information because of the classified information.”
Specter said he would defer calling the companies because Hatch assured him that Cheney “would take a look” at legislation pending in the committee addressing the surveillance program.
Committee Republicans interpreted the statement to mean that the White House had agreed to cooperate with Specter on his legislation that would put the NSA program under the jurisdiction of a secret court set up by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). The bill had been given little chance of passage this year by GOP leadership aides.
In his letter to Cheney, Specter wrote there is no doubt that “the NSA program violates the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act which sets forth the exclusive procedure for domestic wiretaps. …”
If an accommodation could not be reached between the committee and the administration over how Congress should oversee the program, Specter would “consider confronting the issue with subpoenas and enforcement of that compulsory process if it appears that a majority vote will be forthcoming,” the senator wrote.
Hatch yesterday said Cheney called him Tuesday to say he and other White House officials “take the position that the companies can’t talk about the program because it’s classified.”
Hatch said he discussed the vice president’s concerns at the meeting before the public hearing, although he added that Specter was already aware of Cheney’s position.
A Republican member of the Judiciary Committee who requested anonymity said he heard from colleagues that Cheney discussed subpoenas with them at the Tuesday lunch.
Grassley said that he did not speak with Cheney but that the vice president “was talking to three or four other senators at the luncheon.” Grassley declined to say whether he raised objections with fellow committee members at the meeting before the public hearing.
Kyl said he opposed issuing subpoenas to the phone companies but would not say whether he had consulted with Cheney, describing conversations with the vice president as confidential.
Judiciary Republicans who wanted to issue subpoenas hoped they would prod the companies into cooperating and giving information about the NSA program — either that or prompt the companies to persuade the administration to turn over more details.
Companies such as AT&T and Verizon, which have given phone records to the administration, are seeking legislative protection from the Judiciary Committee. They want civil-liability protection from customers expected to sue, alleging violation of their privacy.
The companies also want to know what information is likely to be protected by future privacy laws. Right now, companies rely on ambiguous Supreme Court case law to determine what may be shared with the government.
Some Republicans on the committee had hoped they could have worked with the phone companies to bring more information to light, but that possibility diminished after Cheney’s intervention.
The Judiciary Committee is expected tomorrow to pass Specter’s bill putting the NSA program under the FISA court. It is also expected to pass legislation sponsored by Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio), a member of the judiciary and intelligence panels, that would provide a legal foundation for the surveillance program. A third piece of legislation affecting the NSA program, sponsored by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), is expected to fail.