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President Bush Presses for Flexibility on Terror Surveillance

August 1, 2007 at 6:10 PM EST
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Ever since 9/11, the Bush administration has argued for greater freedom to electronically eavesdrop on terror suspects. But this week, there is new urgency, as it pushes Congress to allow it to intercept overseas communications that are routed through the United States. That is complicated by the 30-year old Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, which requires prior court approval for wiretaps that have a domestic component.

Two views now on the issue from Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and from Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee.

Gentlemen, thank you for being with us.

Representative Hoekstra, to you first. I know you’ve been in meetings on this much of today. The Bush administration asking for permission to listen in on phone calls and e-mails between terrorists under what circumstances?

REP. PETER HOEKSTRA (R), Michigan: Well, really, it — you know, we just came out of a two-hour briefing with the director, McConnell, and it’s very clear that, when we are talking about foreign intelligence on foreign terrorists who are overseas, there’s unanimity. Everybody, I think, that was in that meeting today, Republicans and Democrats, believe that we should be collecting on that information.

That is exactly what the Bush administration is asking for: targeting foreign terrorists overseas and that we ought to be able to collect on those individuals. If we’re collecting on an American, the administration is very clear: collecting on Americans, you need to go to a court and get a warrant.

Significant changes in technology

Sen. Ron Wyden
D-Ore.
The fact of the matter is, this is a dangerous time for America, and it didn't just get dangerous in the last few days.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But what about the aspect of this where if it's foreign -- say, someone who's suspected of being a terrorist in one country overseas talking to a suspected terrorist in another country overseas, but that call or e-mail being routed through the United States. Is that what's at issue here?

REP. PETER HOEKSTRA: Well, what's happened is, over the last 30 years, technology has changed significantly. The FISA law has not. We have collected in the United States for years on different types of communications means where it was foreigner talking to foreigner. We've collected on those without warrants; that's exactly what the administration wants to do, is to update the law for what has happened with technology.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And without court permission?

REP. PETER HOEKSTRA: Without court permission. But the Bush administration, I think most members in the room, again, Republicans and Democrats don't want to extend civil liberties, U.S. civil liberties to terrorists who are overseas.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Senator Wyden, what is the argument then, if that's what the Democrats are saying, that there should be court permission, why?

SEN. RON WYDEN (D), Oregon: I don't quarrel with much of what Peter just said. When you're talking about foreigners making calls to other foreigners overseas, our government ought to be able to listen. But what Peter described is much more limited, much less of an overreach than what the administration has been talking about for months and months, Judy.

The fact of the matter is, this is a dangerous time for America, and it didn't just get dangerous in the last few days. But, unfortunately, the administration has wasted a lot of time on trying to get a bipartisan Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act proposal through.

For example, one of the earlier versions would have given the attorney general essentially unprecedented authority. The attorney general would have had authority, in effect, to immunize people in the administration who knowingly broke the law. I blew the whistle on that in a public hearing. Now we're talking about a much more limited bill.

One of the key issues in this more-limited bill that is going to hopefully be addressed in the last few days concerns, first, the authority of the attorney general and, second, how long this period would be for a new law. Would it go on indefinitely, or would it be more limited? I'm hopeful that we can get a bipartisan compromise on it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So you're saying there's no disagreement on foreign-to-foreign calls or e-mails, however they are routed. You're saying the only hang-up now has to do with the role of the attorney general in this?

SEN. RON WYDEN: The role of the attorney general, how long this law would last for, and also we want to be sure that, when you're talking about innocent Americans, that we nail down the fact that there has to be involvement of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

But I think working in a bipartisan way, with this much more limited proposal -- I want to emphasize, this is very different than what the administration was talking about earlier -- I'm hopeful that we can reach a bipartisan compromise and make sure in our country, Judy, that we fight terrorism ferociously while at the same time being true to American values.

Finding the right language

Rep. Peter Hoekstra
R-Mich.
Republicans and Democrats are very much focused on -- we recognize we're in a time of threat. We recognize that today we've got to collect the dots if we expect the intelligence community to connect the dots, so we're in agreement there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Representative Hoekstra, what does this come down to? It sounds like Senator Wyden is saying the Democrats can go along with the part that you described of this at the beginning of the interview.

REP. PETER HOEKSTRA: Well, I -- thanks, Ron. Thanks for your kind comments. We miss you over in the House, but you're doing well in the Senate.

SEN. RON WYDEN: Thank you.

REP. PETER HOEKSTRA: But, you know, I think, that is the thing. Republicans and Democrats are very much focused on -- we recognize we're in a time of threat. We recognize that today we've got to collect the dots if we expect the intelligence community to connect the dots, so we're in agreement there.

I think it's really a matter now of getting the right language, the right words on a piece of paper so that what Ron and I are talking about, that when we look at that, that we read those words, and we get the same understanding, and we see the same meaning in those words. And sometimes that's a little hard to do, but I think it's possible. And I think, again, with Ron, I think we need to get this done before we go home.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, put it into layperson's terms for us, Congressman. When you say "right language," on what, on the role of the attorney general?

REP. PETER HOEKSTRA: Yes, because, I mean, the -- who makes the decisions where? What exactly is a foreign target? And where does the FISA court come in, in reviewing to make sure that American civil liberties are protected?

And, you know, I'm very encouraged by what Ron has to say and what I come out of the meeting with this afternoon, that there's a tremendous amount of agreement that, whether this proposal from the president is scaled back from where it was or not, it is now in the realm of the doable.

SEN. RON WYDEN: Judy, the fact is, we can get a bipartisan proposal here, but we can't give a blank check to the attorney general. We've had abuses of the Patriot Act in the past. We've had abuses with the national security letters. Let's zero in on foreigners communicating with foreigners overseas.

This is a period of real danger. We ought to target those kinds of communications. But when you're involving law-abiding Americans, there ought to be a requirement that it go through the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. I think we can reach that agreement this week.

Role of the attorney general

Sen. Ron Wyden
D-Ore.
We're all agreed that this is a dangerous time; we all agreed you've got to go after terrorists relentlessly. But we can do it without throwing our constitutional rights in the trash can.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, let's zero in on the attorney general role. Let's come back to that, since you keep raising that, Senator. Congressman Hoekstra, what is it that you see should be the role of the attorney general here?

REP. PETER HOEKSTRA: Well, I mean, you know, number one, it's really the responsibility of the director of national intelligence to make sure that the intelligence that they are collecting is on foreign sources. And the attorney general should review and audit that, and that might actually be something that a FISA court could also review.

The important thing -- and this is where I think Ron and I are probably in very close agreement -- when it comes to capturing, you know, the communications of an American citizen or an American person, the attorney general and the FISA court -- and this is in the latest proposal from the White House -- that the attorney general and the FISA court will review and audit what happens to that information to make sure that American civil liberties are protected.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Congressman Hoekstra, does that sound like something you and your colleagues can live with?

SEN. RON WYDEN: Judy, are you asking me that question?

REP. PETER HOEKSTRA: You already asked me.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I'm sorry, I meant Senator Wyden. My mistake.

SEN. RON WYDEN: As long as the audit process ensures that the court is involved in a significant kind of way -- what I've been concerned about -- this goes back to the earlier drafts -- is it just looked like an open-ended grant of authority to the attorney general. That's not going to be acceptable given the abuses that have taken place in the past. We're all agreed that this is a dangerous time; we all agreed you've got to go after terrorists relentlessly. But we can do it without throwing our constitutional rights in the trash can.

Timing of the debate

Rep. Peter Hoekstra
R-Mich.
[T]he House Intelligence Committee, when we did the intelligence authorization bill a couple of months ago, this was an issue on the floor. We've been trying to get this issue addressed for quite some time.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Congressman Hoekstra, a question on the timing of this. It's been reported that the director of national intelligence, Mike McConnell, came forward with this request just last Friday with only a week to go before Congress was to go home for the August recess. Is there something we should know about the rush to do this?

REP. PETER HOEKSTRA: No, I don't think it's been a rush at all, Judy. I mean, the first -- or one notification came to the committees back in April that we were missing significant quantities of information. The DNI, the director of national intelligence, published an editorial in the Washington Post on May 21 stating the same thing, that there are increased risks and there are significant intelligence gaps. Congress has known about this gap for a significant period of time; this didn't just get here last week, Friday.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Senator Wyden, how did it happen that there's this flurry of activity this week?

SEN. RON WYDEN: Well, Judy, I don't think it's coincidental. It always seems that the administration gets serious about these terrorism issues right before a congressional recess. Let's work in a bipartisan way and get the job done.

The fact of the matter is, a lot of time was wasted, months and months of consideration that could have gone to a bipartisan bill that was targeted and was responsible, was really dedicated to discussion about an overreach. We've been successful now in zeroing in on a more limited approach, an approach that will protect the interests of this country. Let's get on with it.

And I think if we can make sure that we get a responsible period of time for which this law lasts, we confine the role of the attorney general to one where the court is going to also be responsible, where we've got Americans involved, that's the kind of approach that can build a bipartisan foundation.

REP. PETER HOEKSTRA: Well, Judy, I just want to say, the House Intelligence Committee, when we did the intelligence authorization bill a couple of months ago, this was an issue on the floor. We've been trying to get this issue addressed for quite some time.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we understand that now it's a scaled-back approach, and that's what both sides are working on.

SEN. RON WYDEN: This bill, Judy, does not even resemble the original version. That's why I think we can work together and get it done.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Senator Wyden, Representative Hoekstra, we appreciate it. Thank you both.

SEN. RON WYDEN: Thank you.

REP. PETER HOEKSTRA: Thank you.