Cheney seeks expanded presidential powers

? Vice President Dick Cheney on Tuesday called for “strong and robust” presidential powers, saying executive authority was eroded during the Watergate and Vietnam eras. Some lawmakers objected that President Bush’s decision to spy on Americans to foil terrorists showed he was exceeding his constitutional limits.

The revelations of Bush’s four-year-old order approving domestic surveillance without court warrants has spurred a fiery debate on the balance of power among the White House, Congress and the judiciary.

“I believe in a strong, robust executive authority and I think that the world we live in demands it,” Cheney said.

“I would argue that the actions that we’ve taken there are totally appropriate and consistent with the constitutional authority of the president. … You know, it’s not an accident that we haven’t been hit in four years,” the vice president said to reporters on Air Force Two en route from Pakistan to Oman.

Senators respond

On Capitol Hill, senators from both parties said the role of Congress cannot be sidelined – even in wartime.

“I think the vice president ought to reread the Constitution,” said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.

Republicans said Congress must investigate whether Bush was within the law to allow the super-secret National Security Agency to eavesdrop – without warrants – on international calls and e-mails of Americans and others inside the United States with suspected ties to al-Qaida.

“I believe the Congress – as a coequal branch of government – must immediately and expeditiously review the use of this practice,” said Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine.

Snowe joined three other members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, including Nebraska Republican Chuck Hagel, in calling for a joint inquiry by the Senate judiciary and intelligence committees.

The administration defends the program, saying Congress gave Bush the authority to use “signals intelligence” – wiretaps, for example – to eavesdrop on international calls between U.S. citizens and foreigners when one is a suspected al-Qaida member or supporter.

Atty. Gen. Alberto Gonzales cites the Authorization to Use Military Force law, which Congress passed and Bush signed a week after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The administration believes that law lets the government avoid provisions of the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

Under the act, known as FISA, an 11-member court oversees government applications for secret surveillance or searches of foreigners and U.S. citizens suspected of terrorism or espionage.

Conflicting statements

Democrats called attention to a Bush statement in April 2004 that they said conflicts with what he is saying now.

“Any time you hear the United States government talking about wiretap, it requires – a wiretap requires a court order,” Bush said during a speech on the Patriot Act in Buffalo, N.Y. “Nothing has changed, by the way. When we’re talking about chasing down terrorists, we’re talking about getting a court order before we do so.”

The White House said the president’s comments – two years after approving the domestic surveillance program – applied to the kind of roving wiretaps the Patriot Act allows for law enforcement, not eavesdropping for foreign intelligence.

Bush and his top advisers have suggested senior congressional leaders vetted the eavesdropping program in more than a dozen highly classified briefings. Democrats said they were told of the program, but had concerns.

West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller, the Senate Intelligence Committee’s top Democrat, on Monday released a letter he wrote to Cheney in July 2003 that, given the program’s secrecy, he was “unable to fully evaluate, much less endorse these activities.”

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., pushed back Tuesday, saying that if Rockefeller had concerns about the program, he could have used the tools he has to wield influence, such as requesting committee or legislative action. “Feigning helplessness is not one of those tools,” Roberts said.

Memo from Sen. Roberts’ office

Senator Roberts: “I am puzzled by the release yesterday of a July 2003 letter from Senator Rockefeller to the Vice President regarding the recently exposed intelligence collection program, which was authorized by the President shortly after September 11, 2001.

“In his letter and accompanying press statement, Senator Rockefeller asserts that he had lingering concerns about the program designed to protect the American people from another attack, but was prohibited from doing anything about it.

“A United States Senator has significant tools with which to wield power and influence over the executive branch. 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:

1. First, he could have discussed his concerns with me or other Members of Congress who had been briefed on the program. He never asked me or the Committee to take any action consistent with the “concerns” raised in his letter.

2. Second, he could have raised objections with the Vice President during one of the many briefings we received. I have no recollection of Senator Rockefeller objecting to the program at the many briefings he and I attended together. In fact, it is my recollection that on many occasions Senator Rockefeller expressed to the Vice President his vocal support for the program. His most recent expression of support was only two weeks ago.

3. Finally, he could have pursued any number of legislative remedies. He chose to pursue none.

“Senator Rockefeller could have taken any of these approaches to address his “lingering concerns.” He did not. 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.

“For the nearly three years Senator Rockefeller has served as Vice Chairman, I have heard no objection from him about this valuable program. Now, when it appears to be politically advantageous, Senator Rockefeller has chosen to release his two and a half year old letter. Forgive me if I find this to be inconsistent and a bit disingenuous.”