March 7, 2006 -- Splitting along party lines, the Senate Intelligence Committee voted against an investigation of the president's warrantless domestic spying program. The decision dealt a blow to Democrats intent on uncovering more about the program, but senators also indicated they expected the White House to bow to congressional oversight on the matter.
Sens. Mike DeWine of Ohio, Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, and Olympia Snowe of Maine, moderate Republicans on the Intelligence Committee, and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., on the Judiciary Committee, have offered legislation to approve the spying program, but with the provision that it allow for oversight by a special, seven-member intelligence subcommittee, and that the existing Foreign Intelligence Security Act Court would review most of the warrantless wiretap requests.
The draft legislation would authorize the president's program in 45-day increments, and would require that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales justify each individual warrantless wiretap to both the FISA Court and new congressional subcommittees in both houses of Congress.
Hagel, who had been one of the most outspoken Republican critics of the program, hailed the draft legislation, saying, "We are finally reasserting congressional oversight."
Snowe said, "This sets a marker for judicial and legislative oversight."
Intelligence Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., implied that the White House had agreed in principle to the deal after prodding from members of the committee. "This is an agreement we insisted upon and got," he told reporters after the vote. "This story has been in the news for 90 days. I worry about the diminished capacity of the program, even now."
But any agreement is in principle only. The White House was given an outline of the potential legislation only this afternoon.
Roberts has not endorsed the draft legislation but called it a good first step toward a legislative "fix" for the program, which he has supported all along.
Committee Democrats Furious Over Vote
Democrats on the committee were furious, however. They had gone into the meeting expecting a vote in favor of an investigation.
Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., was visibly frustrated after the vote and called the deal "rank partisanship." He said today's vote against an investigation was proof that the White House controls the Intelligence Committee.
"Today was an important day. There was a lot at stake for our country and all Americans, but my Republican colleagues would prefer to operate in the dark," Rockefeller said.
Snowe countered that Rockefeller did not hear the phone calls in which the Republicans made demands of the White House. "We didn't seek their approval," she said.
Rockefeller said Democrats were excluded from all negotiations about this deal, and he criticized Republicans for offering legislation on the issue without knowing everything about it. Gonzales and Gen. Michael Hayden, the deputy director of national intelligence, partially briefed members of the Intelligence Committee last month, but Rockefeller said they left out key aspects of the program. In fact, he indicated that only just now, after spending a large portion of last week at the NSA, going over 450 questions with the staff there, does he truly understand the scope.
With this legislation, the program would not be retroactively authorized, according to its author, DeWine. It would be authorized as of the day the legislation is passed. But there would be no investigation of the program or its past use.
It was that point that particularly angered Rockefeller, who spoke passionately against this deal at the stakeout outside the closed meeting.
Rockefeller said the worst mistake Congress could make was altering FISA without understanding the White House program.
"You can't go to the White House for an hour-long meeting and understand this program after a 45-minute flip-chart presentation where everybody is talking fast and you ask a few questions for 15 minutes at the end."
Though Frist supports the principles outlined in the draft legislation, he said he would not have had a problem with an investigation, either. He released a statement applauding both the legislation and the investigation -- apparently not realizing that an investigation had been voted down by the committee -- but he quickly retracted that statement.
Roberts also announced the Intelligence Committee voted to create a subcommittee on terrorist surveillance. That subcommittee could be briefed as early as Wednesday on all aspects of the wiretapping program, presuming the White House has agreed to brief the committee before any legislation is passed.