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Friday, February 17, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Senate panel won't investigate NSA

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration Thursday won two apparent victories and suffered one setback on key parts of its national security policy: a warrantless-eavesdropping program and extending the Patriot Act.

Aides to President Bush appeared to have derailed a bid by Senate Democrats for an investigation of a controversial program in which the National Security Agency (NSA) has monitored perhaps thousands of phone calls and e-mails involving U.S. residents and foreign parties without obtaining warrants from a secret court that handles such matters.

But there was one setback to the administration's efforts to keep tight wraps on the NSA operation. A federal judge ordered the Justice Department to turn over its internal documents and legal opinions about the program within 20 days, or explain its reasons for refusing.

The program, adopted by Bush after the Sept. 11 attacks, allows the monitoring of international communications into and out of the United States of people believed linked to al-Qaida or related terrorist groups. The White House describes the program as critical to preventing terrorist attacks in the United States, but critics see it as unconstitutional and an abuse of executive power.

And in another controversial national security issue, the Senate voted against a move by Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., to limit the Patriot Act, clearing the path for approval of new civil-liberties protections that would ensure extension of the act, which was set to expire next month.

The congressional inquiry into the NSA had seemed likely two months ago after The New York Times first reported the existence of the eavesdropping program Dec. 16. But Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said the committee decided not to vote on whether to open an investigation after the White House agreed to give lawmakers more information on the program and agreed to changes to the current law, according to Roberts and White House deputy press secretary Dana Perino.

In December, two Intelligence Committee Republicans — Olympia Snowe of Maine and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska — joined Democrats in calling for a congressional investigation of the NSA program. Thursday, they voted to forestall hearings in favor of developing White House-backed legislation establishing clearer rules for the controversial program. Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, is drafting legislation that would exempt the NSA program from the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act but limit eavesdropping to international calls.

But several key Republicans, including House Intelligence Committee member Rep Heather Wilson of New Mexico and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, say the NSA program should fall under FISA guidelines.

Specter's committee will continue to investigate the program's legality at a Feb. 28 hearing. On Thursday, Specter released a letter in which Assistant Attorney General William Moschella seemed to reject the senator's request for testimony from former Attorney General John Ashcroft, who reportedly expressed concerns about the program during a 2004 conversation with top administration officials.

In a victory for privacy advocacy groups seeking Justice Department records about the program, U.S. District Judge Henry Kennedy Jr. ordered the department to finish processing the groups' requests.

Compiled from The Washington Post, The Associated Press, Reuters, Los Angeles Times and Knight Ridder Newspapers reports.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company


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