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Senate won't quiz telecoms about NSA spying

Republican senator abandons pledge to call telecom CEOs to testify about surveillance, saying now's not the right time.

A prominent Republican senator backed away on Tuesday from his pledge to question executives from telecommunications companies that have allegedly been cooperating with the government's secret wiretapping program.

Arlen Specter said that after discussions with the Bush administration and Senate Intelligence Committee colleagues who had been more fully briefed on the National Security Agency program, he was "prepared to defer on a temporary basis" requiring representatives from AT&T, Verizon Communications and BellSouth to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee, which he leads.

The Pennsylvania senator, who had emerged as one of the few vocal Republican skeptics of the warrantless surveillance, had promised to organize such a hearing after USA Today reported last month that the nation's three leading telecom companies had opened up their lines to the NSA. (Some of those companies have since denied their participation.) He said Tuesday that the companies voiced willingness to discuss the topic in a closed session but wouldn't be able to reveal classified information, a stance he found "insufficient and unacceptable."

Specter said he was willing to suspend the inquiry largely because Vice President Dick Cheney had provided assurances that the White House would be more receptive to pending legislation--including a proposal chiefly backed by Specter himself--that would send the existing NSA program and all future surveillance plans to a special court for review of their constitutionality.

Specter's decision, announced at an afternoon committee meeting, clearly startled a number of his Democratic colleagues.

"Why don't we just recess for the rest of the year...and simply say we'll have no more hearings, and Vice President Cheney will just tell the nation what laws we'll have--he'll let us know which laws will be followed and which laws will not be followed," deadpanned Patrick Leahy, the committee's ranking Democrat. "Heck, it's a nice time in Vermont this time of year. That'd make my life a lot easier."

Specter said that he didn't intend to abandon scrutiny of the program. He said the committee is currently negotiating a time for next week or the week after to bring in Attorney General Alberto Gonzales again and plans to ask him about the telecom companies' involvement.

Had enough committee members been present to allow for it, Massachusetts Democrat Ted Kennedy said, he would have ordered a formal vote on whether to summon the telecom companies--although he acknowledged such an idea would likely be defeated.

The committee wants to learn "not who's listening on who; we're not trying to find out what is happening on the telephones, but what is the legal and constitutional justification that was given to those companies," Kennedy said. "If we don't have a responsibility to deal with that, who in the world does?"

Of the four Democrats present, only Calif. Sen. Dianne Feinstein--an Intelligence Committee member who said she'd been briefed "very thoroughly" on the program--said she agreed with Specter's decision.

"I don't know what would be served by issuing a subpoena here," she said. "It seems to me that the Intelligence Committee, having reviewed that program, knows what questions to ask, and they cannot be asked in open session."

She did suggest, however, that the Intelligence Committee bring in the telecom company representatives for its own private round of questioning.