Stifling partisanship is preventing the Senate Intelligence Committee from overseeing the nation's spy agencies, the Senate's Republican leadership says.
But the top Senate Democrat says the Republican-controlled panel is falling down on its responsibility to hold the Bush administration accountable.
The exchange came four days before the intelligence committee was scheduled to discuss whether to open a full-blown inquiry into the National Security Agency's U.S.-based monitoring operations. West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller, the committee's top Democrat, has proposed 13 specific areas to be reviewed.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., wrote to Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., on Friday that repeated calls for investigations are hampering the panel's ability to focus on issues including Iran, North Korea, Muslim extremism and the military modernization of China.
"If attempts to use the committee's charter for political purposes persist, we may have to simply acknowledge that nonpartisan oversight, while a worthy aspiration, is not possible," Frist said.
Reid said the way to end the partisanship is to stop yielding to the White House. "The recent record of the Republican-controlled committee is most notable for its abdication of authority and responsibility," he said.
Without much success, Democrats have been pushing the Bush administration for more information about its monitoring of calls and e-mails of terror suspects — without court approval — when one party to the communication is in the U.S. and the other is overseas. Senior administration officials say the program is too valuable to discuss further in public.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., distributed the Justice Department's responses to 32 questions she raised about the program, but she said she found many of the responses to be "vague or misleading" on important issues facing Congress.
"It raises serious concerns about the credibility of the attorney general's office," said Feinstein, a member of the Judiciary and Intelligence committees. She is requesting a judiciary hearing about the department's answers.
Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said department officials "have been extremely forthcoming and clear" about the administration's legal analysis of the terrorist surveillance program. The department has provided Congress with information in seven letters, three hearings and dozens of pages of papers.
Democrats noted the responses released by Feinstein provide the first acknowledgment that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales knew about the program when he served in his previous job as White House counsel.
At Gonzales' 2005 confirmation hearing to become attorney general, Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., asked if the Bush administration could authorize warrantless wiretaps in violation of law. Gonzales initially said he wouldn't answer a hypothetical.
When further pressed, Gonzales promised to notify Congress if the president authorized this kind of action — "as soon as I reasonably can," he said.
The administration has consistently maintained that no laws were violated.
Among other questions, Feinstein sought details about where the eavesdropping program's funding was authorized. Justice would only say that the appropriate statutes have been followed.