Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., released a three-page letter with detailed questions to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales on the president's decision in 2002 to secretly authorize domestic wiretaps without warrants.
The letter includes many of the questions that constitutional scholars have been posing about the president's order, and several questions could put Gonzales in an awkward position.
Specter's Tuesday letter asked Gonzales why the president did not ask lawmakers to include the authority to conduct such surveillance as part of the USA PATRIOT Act. Congress passed the legislation shortly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, specifically to loosen legal standards governing terrorist investigations.
The letter also asks Gonzales to justify the administration's selective briefing of particular members of Congress, rather than of all of the members of the House and Senate Intelligence committees, as required by law.
At the same time, Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee demanded that Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., hold a business meeting so the committee can vote to investigate several aspects of the administration's domestic spying.
Under committee rules, Roberts is obligated to hold a meeting if at least five members formally ask for one. All seven Democrats on the panel signed the request to Roberts.
A majority vote is needed to move ahead with the investigation. Two Republicans on the committee, Sens. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Olympia Snowe of Maine, have asked Roberts for a hearing on the matter. Roberts has said nothing publicly about holding a hearing. A press call asking whether the senator plans for any hearings was not returned by press time.
Also on Wednesday, a group of Democrats, including Sens. Richard Durbin of Illinois and Charles Schumer of New York, sent a letter to President Bush asking him for specific changes in the law that he believes are necessary to permit effective surveillance of suspected terrorists.
When asked whether they were posing the questions so new provisions could be included in pending legislation to reauthorize the USA PATRIOT Act, a spokesman for Durbin replied: "No. that's because we believe that the president is breaking the law, and we would rather have him not do that."
The spokesman added, "If [Bush] feels that he doesn't have the tools he needs, he has an obligation under the Constitution to come to Congress."
In a speech delivered at National Security Agency headquarters at Fort Meade, Md., President Bush sounded defiant.
"I'll continue to reauthorize this program for so long as our country faces a continuing threat from al Qaeda and related groups," he said. "This enemy still wants to do harm to the American people. We cannot let the fact that we have not been attacked lull us into the illusion that the threats to our nation have disappeared."