Dick Cheney- Corporate Criminal


Senators won't grill phone companies

Updated 6/7/2006 10:48 AM ET
By John Diamond, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON — A last-minute deal Tuesday with Vice President Cheney averted a possible confrontation between the Senate Judiciary Committee and U.S. telephone companies about the National Security Agency's database of customer calling records.
The deal was announced by Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., the committee chairman, and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. They said Cheney, who plays a key role supervising NSA counterterrorism efforts, promised that the Bush administration would consider legislation proposed by Specter that would place a domestic surveillance program under scrutiny of a special federal court.

In return, Specter agreed to postpone indefinitely asking executives from the nation's telecommunication companies to testify about another program in which the NSA collects records of domestic calls.

If passed, Specter's legislation would give the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court power to oversee the NSA program and render an opinion on the constitutionality of conducting domestic surveillance without a warrant. The court, established by the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), normally considers case-by-case requests by intelligence agencies to conduct surveillance inside the USA.

The deal prompted protests from Democratic lawmakers, who said the Republican-controlled Congress had refused to challenge the administration's expansion of presidential authority. "Why don't we just recess for the rest of the year, and the vice president will just tell the nation what laws we'll have?" said Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, ranking Democrat on the committee.

Specter has challenged the administration to justify the legality of intelligence programs inside the country.

After the hearing, Specter said his hand had been forced by the telephone companies' refusal to discuss classified programs. Representatives of more than one company — which ones were not specified in the meeting — agreed to appear, Specter said, but told the panel they would not talk about classified information. Hatch said President Bush "is willing to work with us as long as it doesn't detract from the president's constitutional powers."

At least one Democrat shared Republican concerns about forcing telephone officials to discuss classified programs. "Companies that are trying to be good citizens shouldn't be held out to dry," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.

Feinstein said there were two programs at issue: the NSA surveillance of international calls with one end in the USA and in which one participant is suspected of terrorist activity; and a program that "does not involve content" of conversations.

The surveillance program was disclosed in December by The New York Times and then acknowledged by the administration. The other program, which has not been formally acknowledged by the White House, was disclosed last month by USA TODAY. The program involves the collection of domestic calling data — the numbers and times of calls — by the NSA for use in tracking calling patterns by people suspected of terrorist activities.

In the wake of the USA TODAY story, Specter, who had proposed legislation to give the FISA court power over NSA's warrantless surveillance program, said he wanted phone company executives to testify about any involvement they had with the NSA.

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