WASHINGTON – A vocal Republican critic of the Bush administration's eavesdropping program will preside over Senate efforts to write the program into law, but he was pessimistic Wednesday that the White House wanted to listen.
"They want to do just as they please, for as long as they can get away with it," Senate Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said in an interview with The Associated Press. "I think what is going on now without congressional intervention or judicial intervention is just plain wrong."
Specter was one of the first Republicans to publicly question the National Security Agency's authority to monitor international calls — when one party is inside the United States — without first getting court approval. Under the program first disclosed last year, the NSA has been conducting the surveillance when calls and e-mails are thought to involve Al Qaeda.
Earlier this month, Senate Intelligence Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., expressed interest in handling NSA legislation.
But Specter will stay in the spotlight.
The Senate Parliamentarian last week gave Specter jurisdiction over two different bills that would provide more checks on the Bush administration's warrantless surveillance program.
One bill, written by Specter, would require a secretive federal intelligence court to conduct regular reviews of the program's constitutionality. A rival approach — drafted by Ohio Sen. Mike DeWine and three other Republicans — would allow the government to conduct warrantless surveillance for up to 45 days before seeking court or congressional approval.
Specter said the House and Senate intelligence committees could have had authority over the program under the 1947 National Security Act, which lays out when the spy agencies must tell Congress about intelligence activities.
But, Specter said, the committees haven't gotten full briefings on the program, instead choosing to create small subcommittees for the work.
"The intelligence committees ought to exercise their statutory authority on oversight, but they aren't," Specter said. "The Judiciary Committee has acted. We brought in the attorney general. We had a second hearing with a series of experts, and we are deeply involved in it."
Specter added that his words should not be seen as critical of Roberts, but rather the administration for not briefing the full committees.