Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the senior Democrat on the Judiciary committee, said that the White House apparently believes that "there's no place for congressional or judicial oversight of any of its activities related to national security."
"They're running roughshod over the Constitution, and they're hiding behind inflammatory rhetoric" about the war on terror, Leahy said during a hearing that lasted almost three hours. Because of administration "stonewalling," Leahy added, the committee may have to resort to issuing subpoenas to obtain the information it wants.
The domestic spying program, which was publicly disclosed in December, involves using the NSA and perhaps other government agencies toof people within the United States. Such eavesdropping is done without the approval of the court created by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) for this purpose.
Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, also expressed concern about the administration's reluctance to disclose even a broad outline of how the program works. The Justice Department sent a letter to Specter saying that former Attorney General John Ashcroft, who reportedly expressed reservations at one point about the program's legality, should not be called to testify.
Specter is also readying legislation, called the National Security Surveillance Act, that would force the executive branch to revise its surveillance procedures to bring them under the scrutiny of a secret court created in 1978.
Attorney General Alberto Gonzalesthe program's legality during an earlier appearance on Feb. 6 before the Senate committee, but offered no new information about how it operates. Gonzales did offer to a congressional intelligence committee on Feb. 8.
During Tuesday's hearing, former CIA Director James Woolsey claimed that FISA was outdated because of technological developments.
"The operation of Moore's Law has given us the Internet and disposable cell phones that terrorists have access to," said Woolsey, now a vice president at Booz Allen Hamilton, in reference to the idea that. "That was not remotely envisioned (by the drafters of FISA)."
Sen. Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, said he appreciated the testimony of the panel of witnesses, which included a lineup of law professors, but said their opinions about the law can't be that useful without more facts from the administration.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican, on the other hand, said that during a time of war, Congress should be deferential to the White House. "When he makes an argument on constitutional grounds, we have to give him some slack," Hatch said about President Bush.