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Bipartisan call for wiretapping probe

Cheney says Bush has right to authorize secret surveillance

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Three Democratic and two Republican senators have sent a letter to the leaders of the Senate's Judiciary and Intelligence committees, asking for an "immediate inquiry" into President Bush's authorization of a secret wiretapping program.

"We write to express our profound concern about recent revelations that the United States government may have engaged in domestic electronic surveillance without appropriate legal authority," says the letter, which was signed by Democratic Sens. Dianne Feinstein, Carl Levin and Ron Wyden, as well as GOP Sens. Chuck Hagel and Olympia Snowe.

"We must determine the facts," says the letter, which was sent Monday.

President Bush confirmed Saturday that he had authorized the National Security Agency to intercept calls to or from people inside the country with known ties to al Qaeda or its affiliates, when the other party on the call is outside the United States.

The surveillance is conducted without obtaining warrants from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Court, which the president said was necessary because authorities needed to move against terrorists more quickly than that court could allow.

"I just want to assure the American people that, one, I've got the authority to do this; two, it is a necessary part of my job to protect you; and three, we're guarding your civil liberties," Bush said in a news conference Monday.

Vice President Dick Cheney said Tuesday that the program is within the president's authority.

"If we had been able to do that before 9/11, we might have been able to pick up on two of the hijackers who were in San Diego in touch overseas with al Qaeda," Cheney said during a tour of earthquake damage in Pakistan. "The activity we've undertaken is absolutely consistent with the Constitution."

"It's good, solid, sound policy," the vice president added. "It's the right thing to do." (Watch Bush defend use of wiretaps -- 2:23)

Cheney said such measures were necessary because the United States needed to "aggressively go after terrorists" and that they had "saved thousands of lives."

"It is, I'm convinced, one of the reasons we haven't been attacked in the past four years," Cheney said.

Senators 'deeply troubled'

On Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and the ranking Democrats on the Intelligence and Judiciary committees, Sens. Jay Rockefeller and Patrick Leahy, sent a separate letter to Bush asking for more information on the program's scope and legal rationale.

The trio said they were "deeply troubled" by Bush's assertion Monday that both his constitutional powers as commander-in-chief and a congressional resolution passed after the September 11, 2001, attacks allowed him to authorize the program.

"In your public statements to date, you have not made a convincing legal argument for the authority to do so," the senators said.

The three senators asked for detailed information about congressional briefings on the program.

They also asked for an explanation of why administration officials didn't pursue changes in the procedures for obtaining warrants, if they found them insufficient "to protect Americans from terrorism."

The final decision on whether the Republican-controlled Congress will hold hearings on the surveillance program rests with its GOP leadership.

'Oversight issues' raised

A major source of contention between the White House and critics is whether administration officials sufficiently briefed members of Congress on the program, as required by a federal law governing intelligence activities.

On Monday, the president repeatedly said leaders of Congress had been consulted "more than a dozen times" about the use of the wiretapping, but some lawmakers questioned that assertion.

"At no time, to our knowledge, did any administration representative ask the Congress to consider amending existing law to permit electronic surveillance of suspected terrorists without a warrant such as outlined in the New York Times article," the letter said.

The Times first reported on the program Friday.

Former Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle and Sen. Jay Rockefeller -- the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee -- said they had been briefed in a very limited, general manner about the secret surveillance.

The two Democrats said they didn't endorse the program and raised concerns about it, and say the White House has been misleading the public about what congressional leaders were told.

"For the last few days, I have witnessed the president, the vice president, the secretary of state and the attorney general repeatedly misrepresent the facts," Rockefeller said in a written statement.

The West Virginia senator on Monday also released a copy of the letter he had written to Cheney on July 17, 2003 -- the first day he learned about the wiretapping, he said -- in which he expressed serious concerns about it.

"Clearly, the activities we discussed raise profound oversight issues," Rockefeller said in the handwritten letter.

"Given the security restrictions associated with this information, and my inability to consult staff or counsel on my own, I feel unable to fully evaluate, much less endorse these activities," he wrote.

Chairman rejects claims

Sen. Pat Roberts, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, refuted Rockefeller's claims that there was nothing he could do about the wiretapping program if he was uncomfortable with it.

"A United States senator has significant tools with which to wield power and influence over the executive branch," the Kansas Republican said in a statement Tuesday. "Feigning helplessness is not one of those tools."

"If Senator Rockefeller truly had the concerns he claimed to have had in his two-and-a-half-year-old letter, he could have pursued a number of options to have those concerns addressed," he continued.

Roberts also said that Rockefeller had repeatedly expressed "vocal" support for the program, most recently just two weeks ago.

Another lawmaker who knew about the program, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, asked National Intelligence Director John Negroponte Tuesday to declassify a letter she wrote to the administration years ago expressing her "strong concerns," as well as the White House response.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, discounted the administration's contention that the program was necessary to ensure a swifter response than the FISA court would allow.

"That's why our law allows a president to go right away and apply for those warrants retroactively within 72 hours," she told CNN.

Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean went so far as to compare the program to "the dark days of President Nixon."

CNN's Ed Henry contributed to this report.

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