December 22, 2005
Harman says spy program might be too broad
El Segundo lawmaker urges inquiry into national-security surveillance to ensure it was within bounds.
By Toby Eckert
Copley News Service
WASHINGTON -- A recently disclosed government surveillance program "is essential to U.S. security," but it may go "far beyond" the effort to target al-Qaida terrorists described in secret congressional briefings, Rep. Jane Harman, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said Wednesday.
In her most extensive comments on the matter since the National Security Agency program was revealed last week by The New York Times, Harman, D-El Segundo, said "its disclosure has damaged critical intelligence capabilities."
But she also reiterated her support for congressional hearings on the matter.
"Like many Americans, I am deeply concerned by reports that this program in fact goes far beyond the measures to target al-Qaida about which I was briefed," Harman's written statement said.
But House Intelligence Committee Chairman Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich., vigorously defended the program, insisting that he, Harman and a handful of other top lawmakers were kept fully aware of its details, including the scope of the spying, by Bush administration officials.
The NSA program was carefully designed to "help identify and track communications bet-ween al-Qaida and individuals linked to al-Qaida in the United States," Hoekstra said, adding that Intelligence Committee leaders were "briefed on the program repeatedly during its existence."
Al-Qaida is the terrorist organization founded by Osama bin Laden that carried out the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on Washington, D.C., and New York and is responsible for other terrorist strikes around the world.
President Bush authorized the spy program after the 2001 terrorist attacks, allowing the NSA to eavesdrop on conversations involving foreign calls without a court order.
Because of her post on the Intelligence Committee, Harman was among a handful of lawmakers who were told of the program.
Critics say Bush exceeded his legal authority, and some lawmakers -- including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, and Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, D-W.Va., the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee -- say they raised objections after learning of the program from administration officials.
Bush has strenuously defended the spying, saying that it was vital to national security and that he was well within his authority to order it as commander in chief during wartime.
Speaking with reporters on Capitol Hill, Hoekstra suggested that the criticism was being driven by negative publicity about the once top-secret program.
"They were informed of the program. The president shared this sensitive information with congressional leaders," he said.
"If they now have second thoughts because it made it into the press, so be it. But they shouldn't run from their responsibility and accountability right now."
However, Republicans and Democrats who were previously aware of the program differed about the level of detail that was provided by administration officials in the briefings.
In her statement, Harman said it was "inappropriate" to limit the Intelligence Committee briefings to the four leaders of the House and Senate panels.
"The National Security Act of 1947 gives the president authority to limit congressional briefings only when covert action -- not foreign collection -- is involved," she said.
It is not clear whether she made those objections known to administration officials earlier.
Harman said she had been briefed on the program since 2003, when she took over from Pelosi as top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.
Hoekstra said top administration officials, including Vice President Dick Cheney, gave the briefings.
They included information about the technical capabilities of the program, its scope and "safeguards," legal justifications, examples of information gathered and "actionable intelligence."
The program disrupted planned attacks, he said without providing more details. It was viewed as essential "from a bipartisan basis," he added.
Harman said there should be additional briefings on the program when Congress reconvenes in January, as well as open and closed hearings and the appointment of an independent panel of constitutional experts to examine the issue.
"We must use all lawful tools to detect and disrupt the plans of our enemies; signals intelligence and the work of the NSA are vital to that mission," she said.
"But in doing so, it is also vital that we protect the American people's constitutional rights."