The Senate Intelligence Committee could take a big step into the fray of NSA spying today when it brings the biggest names in the intelligence community before the panel for its annual public hearing on "Worldwide Threats." While spying may not be explicitly on the agenda, Democrats will be hard pressed to restrain themselves when given the opportunity to openly question the nation's most powerful people in the world of intelligence. One democratic aide to a committee member privately suggested, "it could get ugly."
Today's hearing, which starts at 10 a.m. ET, will include the leaders of the intel alphabet: DNI (two witnesses), FBI, CIA, DIA, DHS and INR. Translated, the witnesses are John Negroponte, General Michael Hayden, Robert Mueller, Porter Goss, General Michael Maples, Charles All and Carol Rodley, respectively. (Hayden, who is currently No. 2 at DNI, is former head of NSA which executed the eavesdropping program.)
And while the Judiciary Committee receives the most attention for its oversight responsibility over the program -- Attorney General Alberto Gonzales defends the program in a hearing on Monday next week -- the Intelligence Committee appears poised to launch its own investigation. Yes, the committee Republicans control the panel's inquiries with its one vote majority over Democrats, but two Republicans have already signaled their interest to join Democrats and challenge the administration's rationale for warrant-less spying.
Almost immediately after the super-secret spy program was revealed in The New York Time late last year, committee Republicans Chuck Hagel, Neb., and Olympia Snowe, Maine, joined a group of committee Democrats calling for a joint investigation with the Judiciary Committee. Expressing "profound concern," the bipartisan group wrote to the committee's leaders that the revelations of the spying "require immediate inquiry and action by the Senate."
Action from the committee could start as early as this month. The panel is expected to take up the NSA matter again next Thursday, according to a letter sent from Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, Kansas, to Vice Chairman Jay Rockefeller, W.v. While no vote is scheduled, Rockefeller is pushing for one. In a letter last week to Roberts, Rockefeller reminded the chairman the letter from Hagel, Snowe and others was sent more than five weeks ago. "Many members of our Committee believe that the issues surrounding the NSA domestic surveillance are of such importance... that the Committee needs to take immediate action."
Some of that "immediate action" took place in the committee Wednesday, when the Department of Justice briefed members on the program in closed session. But according to both democratic and republican members, DOJ shed no new light on the NSA program. Instead, the half dozen or so senators that showed up heard the administration's legal justifications for bypassing the FISA courts for eavesdropping on international calls.
Sen. Hagel described it as an "intriguing legal constitutional seminar." Another senator, who would only speak on background due to the sensitivity of the committee's business, said it was "purely a legal discussion." And the most Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., would say when asked if she'd learned anything new about the NSA program was, "it was interesting."
One senator described it as a dress rehearsal of sorts for the Justice Department, since Gonzales is expected to make some of the same arguments Monday in his testimony before the Judiciary Committee. The "dance of definitions" has started, a skeptical senator said.