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Specter maintains threat of subpoenas

Chairman says he'll call phone firms on NSA program if talks fail

Sen. Arlen Specter: If talks with the administration aren't productive, "I'm prepared to go back to the subpoenas."


National Security Agency (NSA)
Dick Cheney

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Republican chairman of a Senate committee said Sunday he is prepared to call telephone company officials to testify about a domestic wiretapping program if he doesn't get cooperation in talks with the Bush administration.

"If we don't get some results, I'm prepared to go back to demand hearings and issue subpoenas if necessary," Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter told CNN's "Late Edition."

After a public spat last week with Vice President Dick Cheney over congressional oversight of eavesdropping and other issues, Specter said Sunday that a telephone call and letter from Cheney Thursday marked a "step forward."

Specter, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, on Wednesday sent a stinging letter to Cheney threatening a "constitutional confrontation" and calling for increased cooperation from the administration on the National Security Agency's no-warrant eavesdropping program.

Cheney responded in a letter Thursday saying the NSA doesn't need congressional approval to run the program.

Cheney wrote that the administration is willing to work with Congress "in good faith" to reassure lawmakers concerned about the program. But he added, "there is no need for any legislation" authorizing the NSA to monitor calls between people in the United States and terrorism suspects overseas without a court order.

The Bush administration has argued that the resolution authorizing military action after the September 11, 2001, attacks, along with the president's authority as commander in chief of the military, give him the power to authorize the program.

Specter said Sunday there is "no doubt" the program violates the 1978 law that governs wiretaps in counterintelligence probes.

He has proposed a bill that would require the Bush administration to submit the program to a constitutionality review by the secret federal court that the 1978 law set up to approve search warrants.

Whether the president's constitutional authority "trumps the statute remains to be seen," he said. "It was a step forward when the vice president responded."

Sen. Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat, said on "Late Edition" that "we just don't know quite yet" if the administration broke the law by authorizing the wiretaps.

"This appears to be undercutting the law," he said. "I would hope that we would accomplish the facts first so that whatever legislation is proposed would be based upon the technology and based upon the practices that they are using."

Specter denied a report that he was ready to give amnesty to anyone who authorized wiretaps.

"If anybody has violated the law, they'll be held accountable, both as to criminal conduct and as to civil conduct," Specter said. "In no way did I promise amnesty."

Specter sent his letter to Cheney after learning the vice president had lobbied other Republicans on his committee without his knowledge. (Watch Specter detail reasons for feud -- 7:22)

After a pair of hearings Tuesday that left the chairman somewhat isolated among his fellow Republicans on the committee, he threatened to seek subpoenas for administration officials or phone company executives to get the answers he wants.

Specter learned Tuesday from a fellow Republican, Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, that Cheney had gone around him to win the support of other GOP senators to block testimony from company executives.

The lack of support from committee Republicans forced Specter to back off Tuesday, leading Democrats to charge he had "caved" on a promise to have company officials testify about disputed reports they provided the records of millions of phone calls to the NSA.

Cheney defends lobbying

In Thursday's letter, Cheney defended his contacts with those senators, arguing they "are not unusual -- they are the government at work." And he told Specter that forcing phone company representatives to testify about the program might disclose "extremely sensitive classified information."

But he said information on the program has been shared with the congressional intelligence committees and the leadership of both the House and Senate, and said he would have Attorney General Alberto Gonzales contact Specter to discuss the administration's thinking on any bill.

"While there may continue to be areas of disagreement from time to time, we should proceed in a practical way to build on the areas of agreement," he wrote.

"I believe that other senators and you, working with the executive branch, can find the way forward to enactment of legislation that would strengthen the ability of the government to protect Americans against terrorists, while continuing to protect the rights of Americans, if it is the judgment of Congress that such legislation should be enacted."

Specter complained Wednesday that the Bush administration had failed to respond to his inquiries about the program. But on Sunday he welcomed Cheney's contact.

"That's the first time I've heard from the administration," Specter said. "And it's the first time that the vice president or any ranking official has said that they're prepared to legislate."

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