By LAURIE KELLMAN, The Associated Press Mon Jul 30, 8:31 PM ET
WASHINGTON - Congress and President Bush's aides worked Monday to expand the government's surveillance authority without jeopardizing citizens' rights, aides to lawmakers and the White House said.
As it pressed for congressional approval, the Bush administration sought to soothe a sore spot in its relationship with lawmakers over a related matter — whether Attorney General Alberto Gonzales misled a Senate panel about internal dissent concerning the program, which nearly prompted mass resignations at the Justice Department.
The White House relented on several fronts in its drive to update the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act this week.
Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, the senior Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, received a classified briefing on the terrorism eavesdropping program. Specter refused to say whether the briefing shed light on whether Gonzales lied when he said there had been no significant disagreement on the program within the administration. He said the White House would release a letter Tuesday on the matter.
The White House also bowed to complaining Democrats and struck a line from Bush's Saturday radio address that might have been damaging to intense behind-the-scenes negotiations.
After Bush had recorded the weekly speech, White House officials late Friday night excised this line: "Every day that Congress puts off these reforms increases the danger to our nation."
It was a rare backpedal by the administration at the Democrats' demand, but it was appropriate for the threat at hand, the White House said.
"Our sole objective has been to get the law changed, not to seek partisan advantage," said presidential spokeswoman Dana Perino. "We were happy to make the requested change, particularly in light of the Democrats' expressed determination to make necessary changes in the law."
A group of Democratic House members led by Washington Rep. Jay Inslee, said Monday they will seek a measure directing the House Judiciary Committee to investigate whether to impeach Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.
White House spokesman Tony Fratto dismissed the measure as the "partisan attack of the day."
In addition to questioning Gonzales' truthfulness, Democrats and some Republicans have openly accused him of helping Bush exploit executive power at the expense of civil liberties and possibly beyond the law on an array of matters including secretive surveillance.
The White House has sought to override such unpleasantness with a pragmatic argument not altogether disputed by Democrats: Al-Qaida is regaining its strength to launch terrorist attacks, and the U.S. government needs more power to spy on communications between people here and those overseas.
Bush and his spy chief warned that the nation needs Congress' help — this week.
"Our intelligence community warns that under the current statute, we are missing a significant amount of foreign intelligence that we should be collecting to protect our country," Bush said.
Aides to senior congressional Democrats and Republicans say they recognize the threat and are willing to pass legislation to address it before Congress adjourns for a month next weekend.
The new plan, offered late last week by Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell, would change the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to allow surveillance without a warrant of terror suspects who are overseas. The Bush administration believes the FISA court now must approve such spying because many conversations and contacts taking place overseas are routed through U.S.-based communication carriers, satellites or Internet providers.
The proposal is narrower than what the administration sought in April: a slew of changes to the 1978 law. For example, the new plan no longer immunizes from lawsuits the telecommunication companies that participate in the National Security Agency program.
Details remained undecided, chiefly over whether after-the-fact court approval would be required for emergency surveillance, according to several congressional officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the talks.
Bush said terrorists now use disposable cell phones and the Internet to communicate, recruit operatives and plan attacks — tools that weren't available when FISA passed nearly 30 years ago.
The 1978 law created a court that meets in secret to review applications from the FBI, the NSA and other agencies to investigate suspected spies, terrorists or other national security threats. The extensive monitoring can include eavesdropping on phone calls or e-mails, planting listening devices and searching homes or luggage.
Shortly after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Bush authorized the NSA to eavesdrop — without requiring a warrant from the FISA court — on calls between people in the U.S. and others overseas when terrorism is suspected.
The administration said it needed to act more quickly than the court could. It also said the president had inherent authority under the Constitution to order warrantless spying, even when it touched U.S. soil or monitored U.S. citizens.
After the program became public and was challenged in court, Bush earlier this year put it under FISA court supervision.