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April 27, 2006
Specter Threatens To Starve NSA

Senator Arlen Specter has threatened to introduce a bill stripping the National Security Agency of funding for surveillance of overseas communication unless George Bush agrees to a wider briefing on the program. Specter says he doesn't plan to vote for the bill, but that yanking the pursestrings is the only tactic left available to him to bring the White House to Congressional heel:

Noting that Congress holds the power of the purse, a frustrated Senate chairman threatened to try to block money for President Bush's domestic wiretapping program.

Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said Thursday he delivered a message to Bush that cut to the heart of the debate over executive power.

"I made the point that the president doesn't have a blank check," Specter said about their meeting Wednesday. "He didn't choose to engage me on that point."

Without a pledge from Bush to provide more information on the surveillance program, Specter filed an amendment to a spending bill Thursday that amounted to a warning to the White House.

The amendment would enact a "prohibition on use of funds for domestic electronic surveillance for foreign intelligence purposes unless Congress is kept fully and currently informed."

Specter also said he would turn the amendment into a bill and hold hearings.

The AP reporter typically uses the inaccurate description of "domestic surveillance" in reference to the program. The NSA effort surveils communications that cross international borders, which makes it the exact opposite of "domestic". Perhaps the wire service could use a dictionary.

The Senator could also use a copy of the Constitution. He correctly states that Congress has the power of the purse, and that they can withdraw funds for government operations. The same document gave the President the power to exercise military force when granted authorization by Congress -- and military force has always included the duty to conduct intelligence and surveillance of the enemy. His complaint about the President 'walking all over' Congress doesn't hold water at all, especially since ranking members of the relevant committees have been continuously briefed on the program since its inception.

That leaves Specter's effort as nothing more than political posturing, although this posturing carries with it the real possibility of damage to national security. If the NSA has to interrupt its surveillance streams, two very bad consequences will result. First, the terrorists will know that they have a window in which to communicate with each other when the US will be unable to trace them. Second, surveillance depends on connecting threads. If the NSA gets forced to stand down even for a few days, the leads on which they work now may go completely cold by the time the operation can begin again.

Does Specter really want to disrupt a program that has helped keep America safe against attack since 9/11? If he follows through on his threat and we get attacked, what exactly does Specter think will happen to him?

The terrorist surveillance program has suffered enough damage, and the Bush administration has already given extended briefings to Congress as a result. A similar threat forced the Bush administration to reveal the amount of money in the intelligence budget spent on the program. Now it looks like members of Congress plan to use this threat on a regular basis to extort capitulations from the White House. Specter and Congress have the power to do this, but that doesn't make it the correct or the smart action to take.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at April 27, 2006 9:46 PM

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