Bipartisan call for wiretapping probe

Cheney says Bush has right to authorize secret surveillance

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Touring Pakistan,

Vice President Dick Cheney says the program "saved thousands of lives."

WASHINGTON (CNN) --12/20/05  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.

"These allegations, which the president, at least in part, confirmed this weekend, require immediate inquiry and action by the Senate," said 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.  <duh - keeping track of Enemies - how strainge>

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.

"It's good, solid, sound policy," the vice president added. "It's the right thing to do."

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.

Lawmakers seek details

The senators want more details about the program.

"We must determine the facts," the letter said.

"It is critical that Congress determine, as quickly as possible, exactly what collection activities were authorized, what were actually undertaken, how many names and numbers were involved over what period, and what was the asserted legal authority for such activities," the senators wrote.

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 members of Congress 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. <Endorsement not required>

"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 said Rockefeller could have talked about it with him or any other member of Congress who had been briefed on the program. Or Rockefeller could have raised his objections during the briefings with Cheney, but didn't, he said.

"He chose instead to write a letter to the vice president and, for two and a half years, keep a copy of the letter in the Intelligence Committee vault and say nothing to anyone," Roberts' statement said.

Former Sen. Bob Graham, who was the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee when the briefings took place, confirmed on ABC's "Nightline" Friday that there was a meeting about the program, but said it was painted in a different light at the time.

"The issue then was whether we could intercept foreign communications when they transited through U.S. communication sites," Graham said. "The assumption was that we would -- if we did that -- we would do it pursuant to the law."

"There was no reference made to the fact that we were going to use that as the subterfuge to begin unwarranted, illegal and -- I think -- unconstitutional eavesdropping on American citizens," he added.

Sen. Jack Reed said Monday he was "stunned by the president's rationales."  <What's New?>

"There are two points that have to be emphasized with respect to the FISA procedure: They're secret and they're retroactive," the Rhode Island Democrat said.

CNN's Ed Henry contributed to this report.