The Senate has inflicted a major defeat on the White House by thwarting Bush administration efforts to renew key provisions of the anti-terrorist Patriot Act amid a new row over possibly illegal domestic wiretapping by a major US intelligence agency.
The stunning setback for a centrepiece of President Bush's legislative agenda came when a defiant group of Senators, Republicans and Democrats alike, insisted on more protection for the personal privacy of Americans, which they claim is threatened by sections of the 2001 Act.
The reversal, which leaves the fate of the entire measure in jeopardy, in part reflected acute unease on Capitol Hill over the disclosure earlier in the day in The New York Times that the ultra-secret National Security Agency has been conducting electronic surveillance without court permission on hundreds perhaps thousands of American citizens, under a special order signed by President Bush in 2002.
The Times report which the paper said it had held up for a year at the request of the Bush administration has created a storm here. Civil liberties groups, as well as many legal experts and politicians, argue that Mr Bush has acted illegally, in effect overturning a three-decades-old ban on American intelligence agencies carrying out espionage on American soil.
The NSA, the far larger American equivalent of Britain's GCHQ at Cheltenham, is often referred to as "No Such Agency' on account of its secretive ways.
Predictably it had no comment on the report yesterday.
Nor would Mr Bush confirm the account, but said in a television interview that he had an obligation to defend US citizens. "Whatever I do to protect the American people, we will uphold the law," he told public television's Newshour programme. Decisions had been taken with the " understanding we have an obligation to protect civil liberties as well" . Other defenders of the White House said the new powers of the NSA were intended to track down and forestall possible terrorist attacks on US targets, and were justified by the unprecedented nature of the threat.
But many in Congress were unconvinced. "This needs to be looked into," Senator John McCain, the influential Arizona Republican, said after he and several colleagues met Mr Bush at the White House. Arlen Specter, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, indicated that hearings would be held into the affair early in the new year.
The presidential order was one of several moves, including the Patriot Act, easing restrictions on the NSA, the CIA and the FBI in the wake of the September 2001 attacks. Even before it was issued, the NSA had begun a " special collection programme" soon after 9/11. These activities moved into high gear with the capture of al-Qa'ida operatives such as Abu Zubaydah and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in Pakistan.
According to officials cited by the Times, investigators found leads pointing back into the US itself as they traced captured computer data and cellphone records. Some 500 individuals living in America, among them US citizens, are said to be under NSA surveillance at any one time, as well as between 5,000 and 7,000 people abroad.
Domestic eavesdropping by the NSA and the CIA has been a sensitive issue here since the revelation that American intelligence agencies illegally wiretapped anti-Vietnam activists and other Nixon administration opponents in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The upshot was legislation specifically banning the practice.
An extension to the Patriot Act, brought in after the 9/11 attack but due to expire at the end of the year, had already been approved by the House of Representatives, as Congress scrambled to wrap up business before the Christmas recess. But the New York Times report abruptly heightened anxieties in the Senate, paving the way for yesterday's developments.
In a crucial vote, the upper chamber's Republican leadership failed to assemble the needed 60-vote majority to cut off a threatened filibuster. The final result just 52 votes for and 47 against means that no final vote on the Act can be held. What happens now is unclear, but the measure will not come up again until Congress reconvenes in January.Reuse content