White House discloses details on surveillance

After pressure from allies, White House relents and divulges to congressional panel details of how spying is done.

In a sign that political pressure from other Republicans is having an effect, the White House on Wednesday disclosed details about its domestic spying program in a secret meeting with members of a House of Representatives intelligence panel.

The briefing by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and intelligence adviser Michael Hayden represents a rare concession for the Bush administration, which has closely guarded the operational details about how eavesdropping is done and previously had discussed them only with a few congressional leaders.

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The move comes after a recent spate of criticism from fellow Republicans, including a call this week for a full congressional inquiry from Rep. Heather Wilson, a Republican who heads the subcommittee overseeing the National Security Agency.

In addition, Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, on Wednesday warned that the controversy "is not going to go away" and said he is drafting legislation to bring the NSA's spying under the umbrella of a court created by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

The bill will "set criteria for what ought to be done to establish what the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court should apply in determining whether the administration's program is constitutional," Specter said.

Even Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner, a Republican who has been one of President Bush's most loyal champions in the House of Representatives, posed some stiff questions to Gonzales on Wednesday. A staunch defender of the Patriot Act, Sensenbrenner has been releasing daily statements on what he describes as "civil liberties safeguards" in a proposal to renew it.

Many of Sensenbrenner's 51 questions (click for PDF) are sympathetic to the president and appear intended to defuse criticism of the NSA's program, which the administration has described as a way to monitor terrorists by intercepting communications when at least one party is outside the United States.

But some of the questions are more pointed. Sensenbrenner asks the attorney general, for instance, to respond to points raised in a Jan. 30 letter (click for PDF) sent by groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International and People for the American Way.

In an appearance before a Senate committee this week, Gonzales defended the program's legality but acknowledged it may have inadvertently intercepted the e-mails and phone calls of Americans with no ties to terrorists.

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