WASHINGTON – Five federal judges gave a boost Tuesday to legislation that would bring court scrutiny to the Bush administration's domestic eavesdropping program.
At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing chaired by Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., the judges reacted favorably to his proposal that would require the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to conduct regular reviews of the four-year-old program.
The existence of the warrantless surveillance by the National Security Agency was revealed by The New York Times three months ago.
The judges stressed that they were not offering their views on the NSA operation, which they said they knew nothing about.
But they said the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has operated capably for 28 years and is fully able to protect civil liberties and give the administration all the speed and flexibility it needs to execute the war on terror.
The administration contends the president has inherent war powers under the Constitution to order eavesdropping without warrants.
"I am very wary of inherent authority" claimed by presidents, testified U.S. Magistrate Judge Allan Kornblum. "It sounds very much like King George."
Before word of the warrantless surveillance leaked publicly, the Bush administration revealed it to just eight members of Congress and to the presiding judge on the surveillance court.
The hearing Tuesday focused on Specter's bill. A rival approach, drafted by Senate Judiciary Committee member Mike DeWine of Ohio and three other Republicans, would allow the government to conduct warrantless surveillance for up to 45 days before seeking court or congressional approval.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., expressed interest in handling legislation on the NSA effort. But the Senate Parliamentarian gave Specter jurisdiction over his bill and DeWine's.
Senate Judiciary Committee member Russ Feingold, D-Wis., has urged censure of the president for authorizing the warrantless surveillance.
Under it, the NSA can monitor international calls — when one party is inside the United States — without first getting court approval. The NSA has been conducting the surveillance when calls and e-mails are thought to involve Al Qaeda.
The others testifying before Specter's panel were U.S. District Judges Harold Baker of Urbana, Ill.; Stanley Brotman of Camden, N.J.; John Keenan of the southern district of New York City; and William Stafford of Pensacola, Fla.
The careers of all five judges have been steeped in the work of the secret surveillance court.
In an interview about the program with The Associated Press last week, Specter said administration officials want to do "just as they please, for as long as they can get away with it. I think what is going on now without congressional intervention or judicial intervention is just plain wrong."