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INSIDE POLITICS

Democrats call for investigation of NSA wiretaps

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Sens. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, and Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat, tell CNN hearings should be conducted.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Democratic House leaders called Sunday for an independent panel to investigate the legality of a program President Bush authorized that allows warrantless wiretaps on U.S. citizens, according to a letter to House Speaker Dennis Hastert.

"We believe that the President must have the best possible intelligence to protect the American people, but that intelligence must be produced in a manner consistent with our Constitution and our laws, and in a manner that reflects our values as a nation," the letter says.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi; Minority Whip Steny Hoyer; Rep. John Conyers, the ranking member on the House Judiciary Committee; and Rep. Henry Waxman, the ranking member on the House Committee on Government Reform, signed the letter.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice defended Bush's actions, telling "Fox News Sunday" the president had authorized the National Security Agency "to collect information on a limited number of people with connections to al Qaeda."

On Saturday, Bush acknowledged he authorized the NSA to intercept international communications of people in the United States "with known links" to terror groups, and criticized the media for divulging the program.

He said he has re-authorized the NSA wiretap program about 30 times "and I intend to continue doing so as long as we have terror threats."

While the NSA is barred from domestic spying, it can get warrants issued with the permission of a special judicial body called the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Court. Bush's action eliminated the need to get a warrant from the court.

Asked why the president authorized skipping the FISA court, Rice said the war on terrorism was a "different type of war" that gives the commander in chief "additional authorities."

"I'm not a lawyer, but the president has gone to great lengths to make certain that he is both living under his obligations to protect Americans from another attack but also to protect their civil liberties," Rice said on "Meet The Press."

"And that's why this program is very carefully controlled. It has to be reauthorized every 45 days. People are specially trained to participate in it. And it has been briefed to leadership of the Congress, including the leadership of the intelligence committees."

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid said "Congress was never involved" in Bush's decision.

"I think all you need to know is look at former Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Bob Graham -- he was never informed of domestic eavesdropping," the Nevada Democrat said on "Fox News Sunday." "There should be committees investigating this."

Top Republicans also called for hearings.

"We have to resolve the issue to show Americans we are nation of law not outcomes," Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said on CBS' "Face The Nation." "I would like to see the intelligence committee look into it."

"There is a theme here that is a bit disturbing," the Judiciary Committee member said.

"If you allow him [Bush] to make findings, he becomes the court. You can't allow him or others to play the role of the court because then others adopt that model when they hold our troops."

Sen. John McCain also said that if the matter goes to a congressional panel that the intelligence community should investigate.

"You've got to be very careful about putting into the open situation" sensitive information "that would be helpful to al Qaeda," he said.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, told "CNN's Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer" there were many questions but cautioned against politicizing the matter.

"I'd like to inquire why they didn't go to the Federal Intelligence Security Act," [FISA] which sets up a special court to authorize national security wiretaps," the senator said. "That's a real question they have to answer."

Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wisconsin, said he believes Bush's action violated the law.

"FISA law says it's the exclusive law to authorize wiretaps," he said. "This administration is playing fast and loose with the law in national security. The issue here is whether the president of the United States is putting himself above the law, and I believe he has done so."

Specter, however, said Feingold "is rushing to judgment."

"The president did notify key members of Congress," he said, but he added that the matters of how much those members of Congress were told -- and what they should have done about it -- were unsettled.

Sen. Carl Levin, a member of the Intelligence Committee, said it is possible the president's action was illegal, but that should be determined through hearings.

"But I don't want to prejudge whether the president broke the law," the Michigan Democrat said on "Meet The Press." "We need an explanation. We need it fast. The American public is entitled to the protections of the law."

CNN has not confirmed the exact wording of the president's order.

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