Tactics of war on terror to occupy Congress
Lawmakers will move this week on how to proceed with warrantless surveillance and treatment of detainees.
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Last week, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales told the Senate Judiciary Committee that Bush had personally blocked the Justice Department's internal investigation into the NSA surveillance program.Skip to next paragraph
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Meanwhile, civil liberties groups urge more congressional oversight and a resolution to the dispute that the public can see and understand.
"The legislation labeled by Senator Specter as a compromise is a complete cave-in to the Bush administration," said former GOP Rep. Bob Barr of Georgia, who now chairs the group Patriots to Restore Checks and Balances.
Constitutional experts say such issues in the past have been resolved openly. "There's no way to have an adversarial process when one side has all the information and won't release it," says Louis Fisher, an expert on balance of power issues at the Library of Congress. "How do we decide constitutionality? You have to persuade people.... Democracy dies behind closed doors."
Some Senate Democrats say they are not supporting the Specter proposal.
The Specter bill "gives trappings of independent oversight, but really no checks on executive power. I will oppose it," says Sen. Ron Wyden (D) of Oregon, who, as a Senate Intelligence panel member, has been briefed on the NSA surveillance program.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California is also prepared to vote against the Specter plan. "It sets a precedent for all time. We're in a situation that could go on for decades. To have Americans' communications tapped without a warrant is not something I could agree to," she says.
Congress is being pressed to act on warrantless surveillance and the treatment of detainees by the progress of lawsuits through US courts. On Thursday, US District Judge Vaughn Walker declined to dismiss a lawsuit contesting the NSA surveillance program on the grounds that dismissing the case "would sacrifice liberty for no apparent enhancement of security."
At the same time, the Senate Armed Services Committee is taking the lead to negotiate a deal with the White House over the treatment of detainees, following the US Supreme Court ruling in Hamdan v. Rumsfeld that requires the executive "to comply with the rule of law that prevails in this jurisdiction."
For some GOP senators, that means rewriting law to fit the current practices of the Bush administration in the treatment of detainees. But there is strong support on both sides of the aisle for Congress to take a more assertive role.
"There is a collaborative process going on that is going to lead to a good result," said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina, who is calling for a military commission model that starts with the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
"Provisions should not be interpreted to limit our ability to get actionable intelligence by humane but sometimes aggressive methods," counters Sen. John Cornyn (R) of Texas. "We must protect our own people from lawsuits on the basis of something ambiguous and vague."