House Panel to Expand Oversight of NSA Surveillance Program

The House Intelligence Committee has agreed to expand its oversight of the Bush administration's controversial surveillance program and will seek full briefings for select members of the panel.

The deal -- worked out between House Intelligence Chairman Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich., and the panel's top Democrat, Rep. Jane Harman, D-Calif. -- would open a comprehensive review of whether the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act needs to be modernized.

Hoekstra has also agreed to work with the White House to have a limited number of committee members fully briefed about the most classified operational details of the secretive National Security Agency's work.

The White House has resisted such briefings and instead has only shared full details of the program with the eight lawmakers who lead the House and Senate and the two intelligence committees.

Harman said she still wants to have all members of the panel briefed. But "this is movement in the right direction," she said in an interview.

As part of their expanded oversight, intelligence committee members will submit detailed questions to the Justice Department on how the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act works, according to joint statement from Hoekstra and Harman.

The committee will also receive a closed-door briefing on that law's operations and authorities and will later hold a public hearing to improve the general understanding of the law.

In a subtle nod to the difficult politics facing Congress as it seeks information from the administration, the committee is not conducting a full-scale investigation and will do this work in its normal course of oversight.

The White House still must sign off on the committee's plan and the information it is requesting.

Democrats are trying to keep a focus on the need for more information. Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., introduced a bill Thursday to investigate the Bush administration's eavesdropping program with a nonpartisan organization, called the National Commission on Surveillance Activities and the Rights of Americans.

A commission would "shed much-needed sunshine on any unlawful or unconstitutional executive intrusions into the lives of ordinary Americans," Byrd said.

He was critical of a letter, released this week, in which Attorney General Alberto Gonzales clarified his testimony on six different points he made before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Gonzales testified last month "it has always been our position" that President Bush inherently had the power to order the monitoring as commander in chief and under a Sept. 2001 congressional authorization to use force in the war on terror.

But Gonzales said his comments may have given "the misimpression that the department's legal analysis has been static over time." In fact, "the department's legal analysis has evolved," Gonzales wrote Senate Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa.

Byrd asked what Gonzales' clarification meant. "Does it mean the department had to gin up some legal basis for the spying once the program became public?" he asked.

Gonzales also stressed that his comments were limited to the president's program allowing the government to monitor international calls and e-mails of U.S. residents, when terrorism is suspected. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said Gonzales' revised answers suggest there are other "secret programs impinging on the liberties and rights of Americans."

Republicans are resisting efforts to open official inquiries into the program. Last month, GOP members of the Senate Intelligence Committee effectively voted to postpone consideration of a Democratic proposal for an investigation, while they worked with the White House on legislation and more briefings for Congress.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., formed a Republican "working group" this week to find a way change to U.S. law to accommodate the monitoring. But no early compromise was reached, and sometimes tense meetings continue among senators and their aides.

Harman said she's interested in robust oversight before any legislation is considered. "Having the White House negotiate with Senate Republicans only, and spring a done deal on the Congress, I think would be a big mistake," she said.