Washington Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Pat Roberts said Friday the Bush administration's domestic spying is within the president's inherent power under the Constitution, and he rejected criticism that Congress was kept in the dark about it.
The program is "legal, necessary and reasonable," the Kansas Republican wrote in a 19-page letter, taking a particularly expansive view of the president's authority for the warrantless surveillance.
"Congress, by statute, cannot extinguish a core constitutional authority of the president," Roberts wrote.
Presidents from George Washington to George W. Bush have intercepted communications to ascertain enemy threats to national security, Roberts told the chairman and ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Roberts' letter came just three days before that panel was to question Atty. Gen. Alberto Gonzales about the surveillance.
All eight Judiciary Committee Democrats urged Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., to call more top Bush administration officials in for questioning, including former Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft and ex-Deputy Atty. Gen. Jim Comey. Comey reportedly objected to parts of the program.
Roberts said the Bush administration's notification of just eight members of Congress fulfilled the legal requirement that the legislative branch be kept fully and currently informed.
Roberts has received a dozen briefings on the program; the committee's ranking Democrat, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, of West Virginia, half that many.
Rockefeller says he has not received enough detailed information about the surveillance to make a judgment about its legality, and that the full committee should be briefed.
A closed-door hearing is scheduled for Thursday, with testimony from Gonzales and Gen. Michael Hayden, the principal deputy director of national intelligence and a former National Security Agency director.
Committee Democrats are pushing for a vote on whether to authorize an investigation. A Feb. 16 business meeting of the committee is scheduled.
With Congress preparing to plunge into a hearing focused exclusively on the warrantless wiretapping, Vice President Dick Cheney said exposing the effort has done "enormous damage to our national security." The New York Times revealed the program's existence in December.
"It, obviously, reveals techniques and sources and methods that are important to try to protect," Cheney said. "It gives information to our enemies about how we go about collecting intelligence against them. It also raises questions in the minds of other intelligence services about whether or not they can work with the United States intelligence service, with our CIA, for example, if we can't keep a secret."
Cheney said he agreed with CIA Director Porter Goss, who told a Senate hearing on Thursday that such leaks are undercutting U.S. intelligence efforts. "I thought Director Goss was rather restrained in his comments, but he was absolutely correct," Cheney said.
Cheney's remarks came in a radio interview with conservative talk show host Laura Ingraham.