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Specter warns of 'confrontation' over NSA hearings

Chairman scolds Cheney, still seeks White House cooperation


National Security Agency (NSA)
Dick Cheney

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A Senate committee chairman warned of a "constitutional confrontation" with the Bush administration Wednesday over its domestic surveillance program, threatening to subpoena administration officials or phone company executives in a congressional review.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter publicly complained about the Bush administration's refusal to cooperate with his panel Tuesday and sent a stinging letter to Vice President Dick Cheney after learning Cheney had lobbied other Republicans on his committee without his knowledge.

"I'm not looking for courtesy," the Pennsylvania Republican told CNN. "What I'm looking for is judicial review of wiretaps, which is the tradition in America. (Watch Specter detail reasons for feud -- 7:22)

"What I'm looking for is sufficient information for the Congress, the Judiciary Committee, to handle our responsibility for congressional oversight on a constitutional issue," Specter said.

Specter wants the administration to submit the National Security Agency's no-warrant domestic surveillance program to a review by a secret federal court.

He called the program a "flat violation" of the 1978 law that set up that court. But Specter said he was willing to hear out the administration's argument that President Bush has the authority as commander in chief of the military to authorize wiretaps to prevent terrorism.

In his three-page letter to Cheney, Specter said it was "neither pleasant nor easy to raise these issues with the administration of my own party." (See the full letter -- PDF)

But he demanded cooperation from the White House, warning that he would ask his committee to issue subpoenas if necessary -- a process that requires a majority vote.

"The committee would obviously have a much easier time making our case for the enforcement of subpoenas against the telephone companies, which do not have the plea of executive privilege," he wrote. "That ultimately may be the course of least resistance."

A Specter aide later told CNN that the letter did not necessarily constitute a threat to subpoena administration officials.

Cheney spokeswoman Lea Anne McBride told CNN the vice president "has not had a chance to study the letter." But she said the administration plans to continue to "work with members of Congress in good faith" on oversight of the NSA program.

Specter chastised the vice president for not disclosing his lobbying efforts on Tuesday when they shared a buffet at an event with other Republicans.

"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," Specter wrote.

Specter accused the administration of repeated stances to expand executive power, "frequently at the expense of Congress' Article 1 [constitutional] authority."

He cited Bush's use of presidential signing statements attached to legislation; an FBI search of the Capitol Hill office of Democratic Rep. William Jefferson in a bribery probe; and Justice Department assertions of authority to prosecute journalists.

Deal isolates Specter

The mounting frustrations since the December revelations of the NSA program to eavesdrop on telecommunications without court-issued warrants boiled over after a pair of hearings Tuesday that left Specter somewhat isolated.

Specter and other committee members were annoyed the Justice Department had sent a mid-level official to testify but who would not respond fully to their questions on the potential prosecution of journalists who published leaked material about the program.

Hours later, as a session on calling major telephone companies to testify on the NSA program was about to begin, Specter learned the vice president had circumvented him and won backing from other GOP members on the panel to prevent the testimony.

The lobbying maneuver engineered by Cheney and Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican, left Specter's hands tied.

Hatch said he had won assurances from Cheney that the White House would at least review legislation on the program submitted by Specter in March.

Faced with a lack of support, Specter reversed course and said he would not call on the phone companies to testify about allegedly providing the NSA with records of millions of phone calls. Democrats pounced on Specter, charging he had "caved" on a promise to call the phone executives.

Specter to 'keep pushing'

Bush acknowledged the existence of the program in December after The New York Times reported that the government was listening in -- without obtaining court orders -- on phone calls involving people suspected of having ties to terrorists, as long as one party was outside the United States.

Some legal scholars have said the program is an illegal and unwarranted intrusion on Americans' privacy. The Bush administration defends it as a necessary tool in the battle against the al Qaeda terrorist network.

The Foreign Intelligence Security Act requires that the government obtain a court order from a secret FISA court to tap the phones of American citizens inside the country.

Specter's legislation would require the FISA court to rule on the constitutionality of the program.

"Notwithstanding my repeated efforts to get the administration's position on this legislation, I have been unable to get a response, including a 'no,' " Specter wrote in his letter.

The committee is scheduled to resume business Thursday morning, and the NSA surveillance program is again on the agenda. Specter said Wednesday that he would "keep pushing" for congressional oversight of the highly classified program.

"I've waited many weeks, a few months. I can wait a few more days," he said. "But I'm insistent on the protection of civil liberties and insistent on the Congress's right to oversight on constitutional issues."

CNN's Terry Frieden and Ed Henry contributed to this report.

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