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Democrat: White House built 'wall' around spy program

From David Ensor
CNN Washington Bureau

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller on Thursday complained about a "wall the White House has constructed" around its domestic surveillance program and said Democrats will press their attacks on the president's authorization of the program.

An angry Rockefeller, D-West Virginia, signaled at the start of Senate Intelligence Committee hearings with the nation's intelligence chiefs that the Bush administration's rationale for not briefing more members of Congress was "flat-out unacceptable."

President Bush authorized the National Security Agency to intercept communications between people inside the United States, including Americans, and terrorist suspects overseas without obtaining a court warrant.

Some critics call the program illegal, contending it threatens civil liberties and privacy rights.

Rockefeller, the senior Democrat on the Senate panel, complained of a "wall that the White House has constructed around the NSA's warrantless collection of phone calls and e-mails inside the United States."

He asked: "What is unique about this one particular program among all the other sensitive NSA programs that justifies keeping Congress in the dark?"

Administration officials from the president down have argued that since a small group of lawmakers -- including Rockefeller -- were briefed on the secret program, Congress cannot complain it was not informed.

In December, Rockefeller released a copy of a July 2003 letter he had written to Vice President Dick Cheney, expressing his concerns over the program after a White House briefing.

"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.

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is set to testify next week before the Senate Judiciary Committee about the administration's legal basis for the surveillance program. (Watch as Gonzales defends the program -- 9:12)

The administration contends Bush's constitutional powers as commander in chief as well as a congressional resolution passed in the wake of the September 11, 2001, attacks provide the legal authority for the no-warrant surveillance.

Critics of the program point out that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 covers domestic wiretaps, requiring the government to go to a FISA court to seek a warrant within 72 hours of establishing such a wiretap.

Meanwhile, in testimony Friday before the Senate intelligence panel, National Intelligence Director John Negroponte said terrorism remains the "pre-eminent" threat to the United States, with al Qaeda topping the list of groups seeking to attack the country and U.S. interests abroad.

"Despite its claims to the contrary, we assess that Iran seeks nuclear weapons," Negroponte also said.

However, he added, "We judge that Tehran probably does not yet have a nuclear weapon and probably has not yet produced or acquired the necessary fissile material."

Negroponte also spoke of threats from avian flu, weapons proliferation, energy supply problems, North Korea and of the challenges facing U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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