February 6, 2006

Gonzales defends wiretaps

By David Morgan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Democratic senators tangled on
Monday with Attorney General Alberto Gonzales over his defense
of the Bush administration's electronic eavesdropping program,
with one accusing him of skirting all questions relevant to the
congressional probe.

Gonzales called the National Security Agency surveillance
of phone calls and e-mail without a warrant an indispensable
"early warning system" against attacks, but skeptical senators,
including some Republicans, challenged his assertion that the
Constitution and the U.S. Congress gave President George W.
Bush the authorization to act.

During the often testy daylong hearing, Gonzales fielded
scores of questions but repeatedly declined to answer, citing
the secrecy of the program and saying operational details

could not be made public without ruining the ability to
monitor contacts between militants abroad and their U.S.

Visibly frustrated, the top Democrat on the Senate
Judiciary Committee, Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, abruptly
broke in at one point: "Of course, I'm sorry, Mr. Attorney
General, I forgot you can't answer any questions that might be
relevant to this."

Leahy accused the administration of acting "illegally
without safeguards."

New York Democrat Charles Schumer told Gonzales, "I know
it's been a long day for you. Especially with all that bobbing
and weaving, it's not so easy."

Gonzales refused to discuss the scope of the program that
Bush authorized in 2002, any successes, possible abuses or any
safeguards in place.

Some Republicans also criticized the administration, saying
it should have asked Congress to authorize the program
specifically, instead of relying on a broad authorization to
use force after the September 11 attacks, the Constitution and
inherent executive authority.

Chairman Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican who
chairs the committee, said while "the president of the United
States has the fundamental responsibility to protect the
country ... the president does not have a blank check."

Ohio Republican Mike DeWine said the administration would
stand on firmer ground if it had sought specific congressional
backing, and Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina
said he never envisioned such eavesdropping to be part of the
post-September 11 legislation he helped pass.


Gonzales insisted the president's authorization of the
program was consistent with the law and his constitutional
authorities, and in an unusually pointed remark for the
soft-spoken attorney general, said:

"There have been many statements today about 'No one is
above the law.' And I would simply remind -- and I know this
doesn't need to be stated -- but no one is above the
Constitution either, not even the Congress."

Critics say the program violates privacy rights as well as
the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, which
makes spying on Americans in the United States illegal without
the approval of a special secret court. Gonzales said FISA was
often not nimble enough to protect the country.

Specter urged Bush to let a secret FISA court review the
eavesdropping program.

"You think you're right. But there are a lot of people who
think you're wrong. As a matter of public confidence, why not
take it to the FISA court?" the senator asked.

Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin accused Gonzales
of misleading the Senate during his confirmation hearings in
January 2005 when the attorney general said under oath that
Bush would not authorize illegal action.

To Feingold's question on Monday of whether Bush had
authorized any other actions that would be illegal if not
permitted under similar claims of constitutional power or
authorization to use military force, Gonzales said: "Not to my
knowledge, senator."

Specter said this was the first of at least three hearings
on the matter, adding that former Attorney General John
Ashcroft, who expressed reservations about the program, was
considering a request to testify.