The Republican chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee said Thursday he had worked out an agreement with the White House to consider legislation and provide more information to Congress on its warrantless surveillance program. The panel's top Democrat, who has requested a full-scale investigation, immediately objected to what he called an abdication of the committee's responsibilities.
At the same time,to release documents about the eavesdropping program or spell out what it is withholding, a setback to efforts to keep the program under wraps.
Lawmakers have also been seeking more information about the president's program that allowed the National Security Agency to eavesdrop — without court warrants — on Americans whose international calls and e-mails it believed might be linked to al Qaeda.
After a two-hour closed-door session, Senate Intelligence Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said the committee adjourned without voting on whether to open an investigation. Instead, he and the White House confirmed that they had an agreement to give lawmakers more information on the nature of the program. The White House also has committed to make changes to the current law, according to Roberts and White House deputy press secretary Dana Perino.
"I believe that such an investigation at this point ... would be detrimental to this highly classified program and efforts to reach some accommodation with the administration," Roberts said.
Still, he promised to consider the Democratic request for a vote in a March 7 meeting.
Earlier, Bush spokesman Scott McClellan reiterated that the president does not need Congress' approval to authorize the warrantless eavesdropping and that Mr. Bush would resist any legislation that might compromise the program.
West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller, the Intelligence Committee's top Democrat, said the White House had applied heavy pressure to Republicans to prevent them from conducting thorough oversight. He complained that Roberts didn't even allow a vote on a proposal for a 13-point investigation that would include the program's origin and operation, technical aspects and questions raised by federal judges.
Rockefeller said the Senate cannot consider legislation because lawmakers don't have enough information. "No member of the Senate can cast an informed vote on legislation authorizing or conversely restricting the NSA's warrantless surveillance program, when they fundamentally do not know what they are authorizing or restricting," he said.
It remains unclear what changes in law may look like. Roberts indicated it may be possible "to fix" the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to authorize the president's program. Perino said the White House considers suggestions put forward by Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, the starting point, particularly his proposal to create a special subcommittee on Capitol Hill that would regularly review the program.
Yet Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner, R-Va., left the closed hearing saying he has been working on a different legislative change to FISA. "It seems that's a logical place to start, to upgrade FISA given the extraordinary expanse of technology in the 30 years that have lapsed," he said.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., told a forum at Georgetown University Law School Thursday night, "You cannot have domestic search and seizure without a warrant." He is drafting legislation to require the foreign surveillance court to review the program and determine if it is constitutional.
California Rep. Jane Harman, ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, told the Georgetown audience the surveillance "can and must comply" with the law requiring warrants from the special court. However, she supported the need to conduct electronic eavesdropping to combat terrorism.
Specter's committee will continue to probe the program's legality at a Feb. 28 hearing. The Justice Department strongly discouraged him from calling former Attorney General John Ashcroft and his deputy, James Comey, to testify about the surveillance program.
Just as Attorney General Alberto Gonzales could not talk about the administration's internal deliberations when he appeared before the committee earlier this month, neither can Ashcroft nor Comey, Assistant Attorney General William Moschella said in a letter to Specter.
In his ruling Thursday, U.S. District Judge Henry Kennedy found that a private group, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, will suffer irreparable harm if the documents it has been seeking since December are not processed promptly under the Freedom of Information Act. He gave the Justice Department 20 days to respond to the group's request.
"President Bush has invited meaningful debate about the wireless surveillance program," Kennedy said. "That can only occur if DOJ processes its FOIA requests in a timely fashion and releases the information sought."
Justice Department spokeswoman Tasia Scolinos said the department has been "extremely forthcoming" with information and "will continue to meet its obligations under FOIA."
CBS News legal analyst Andrew Cohen says that while this is a victory for the plaintiffs, it is by no means a major ruling that will instantly lift the lid of secrecy from the spying program.
"The judge didn't order the feds to suddenly release all sorts of classified or secret information. All the judge did was to tell the Justice Department that it has to speed up its response to a request for information about the National Security Agency program," said Cohen. "And the information that initially will be released will be very unspecific. The big battles are yet to come over how much of this stuff eventually is made public."