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Congress to Initiate Inquiry Into NSA...s Wiretap Program

By Eric Lichtblau
and Sheryl Gay Stolbert


Leaders of the House Intelligence Committee said Thursday that they had agreed to open a Congressional inquiry prompted by the Bush administration’s domestic surveillance program. But a dispute immediately broke out among committee Republicans over the scope of the inquiry.

Representative Heather A. Wilson, the New Mexico Republican and committee member who called last week for the investigation, said the review “will have multiple avenues, because we want to completely understand the program and move forward.”

But an aide to Representative Peter Hoekstra, the Michigan Republican who leads the committee, said the inquiry would be much more limited in scope, focusing on whether federal surveillance laws needed to be changed and not on the eavesdropping program itself.

The agreement to conduct an inquiry came as the Senate Intelligence Committee put off a vote on conducting its own investigation after the White House, reversing course, agreed to open discussions about changing federal surveillance law. Senate Democrats accused Republicans of bowing to White House pressure.

For weeks, the Bush administration has been strongly resisting calls from Democrats and some Republicans for a full review into the National Security Agency’s surveillance program, saying such inquiries are unnecessary and risked disclosing national security information that could help Al Qaeda.

Elsewhere on Thursday, a federal judge ordered the administration to begin turning over internal documents on the surveillance program, the Justice Department balked at having John Ashcroft, the former attorney general, and other former department officials testify about it before Congress, and lawyers for a Kentucky man prepared to bring a federal civil rights lawsuit on Friday against President Bush to have the surveillance declared illegal and unconstitutional.

The surveillance, authorized in secret by President Bush soon after the Sept. 11 attacks, has allowed the N.S.A. to eavesdrop on the international phone and e-mail communications of hundreds and perhaps thousands of people within the United States without warrants when the authorities suspect that they might have links to terrorists.

Mr. Hoekstra has been one of the staunchest defenders of the program. But in discussions this week with other Republican and Democratic leaders of the committee, he agreed to have the committee open the inquiry, officials said, after signs that some Republicans on the panel had growing concerns about the operation.

Ms. Wilson said the review would include closed-door briefings by intelligence officials about the operational details of the program, a review of its legality and discussion about whether changes are needed in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, which bans eavesdropping in intelligence investigations without a court order.

While the administration agreed under pressure last week to provide limited operational details to the House and Senate intelligence committees, Ms. Wilson said she wanted more information and remained uncertain whether the N.S.A. had the needed safeguards in place to protect against civil rights abuses against Americans.