Senate Grills Gonzales on Domestic Spying

The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee began hearings Monday on President Bush's warrantless domestic eavesdropping program. The White House says eavesdropping by the National Security Agency (NSA) is necessary to fight terror, but opponents say it violates civil rights. The hearings began with testimony from Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who faced tough questioning from senators.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

From the studios of NPR West, this is Day to Day. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

And I'm Alex Chadwick. Coming up, how the Bush administration plans to spend nearly $3 trillion over the next fiscal year.

BRAND: But first, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is on Capitol Hill today. The Senate Judiciary Committee is holding a hearing into the Bush administration's warrantless eavesdropping program. NPR's Al Shapiro reports.

AL SHAPIRO, reporting:

The Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman, Republican Arlen Specter, called this hearing after democrats and some republicans said the Bush administration may have broken the law by spying on Americans without a warrant.

Today, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales defended the program's legality. And he warned that even talking about it helps the terrorists.

Mr. ALBERTO GONZALES (Attorney General): Our enemy is listening. And I cannot help but wonder if they aren't shaking their heads in amazement at the thought that anyone would imperil such a sensitive program by leaking its existence in the first place and smiling at the prospect that we might now disclose even more or perhaps even unilaterally disarm ourselves of a key tool in the war on terror.

SHAPIRO: Gonzales repeatedly steered the conversation back to the 9/11 attacks that led President Bush to authorize the program. Ranking Democrat Patrick Leahy of Vermont said he didn't need the reminder.

Senator PATRICK LEAHY (Democrat, Vermont): I was here when that attack happened. And I join with republicans and democrats and virtually every member of this Congress to try to give you the tools that you said you needed for us to go after al-Qaeda, and especially to go after Osama bin Laden.

SHAPIRO: So, he asked, if you needed more tools, why didn't you just ask Congress to write a new law? Gonzales said a new law wasn't necessary. He believes the president acted legally. The law governing domestic spying is called the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA. The FISA statute prohibits the government from warrantless domestic spying, except as authorized by statutes.

Mr. GONZALES: Those words, except as authorized by statute, are no mere incident of drafting. Instead, they constitute a far-sighted safety valve.

SHAPIRO: Gonzales said when Congress authorized the president to use military force to fight terrorists after 9/11, it activated that safety valve and allowed the president to spy on Americans without judicial oversight.

Chairman Specter didn't think that's what Congress meant to do.

Senator ARLEN SPECTER (Republican, Pennsylvania): How can you say Congress intended to give you this authority?

SHAPIRO: Leahy agreed.

Senator LEAHY: That authorization said to capture or kill Osama bin Laden and use the American military to do that. It did not authorize domestic surveillance of American citizens.

SHAPIRO: But Gonzales maintained that the domestic surveillance program was not only President Bush's right. It was his obligation.

Mr. GONZALES: The president is duty bound to do everything he can to protect the American people. He took an oath to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution. In the wake of 9/11, he told the American people that to carry out this solemn responsibility he would use every lawful means at his disposal to prevent another attack.

SHAPIRO: There's a narrow focus to these hearings. Specter described the limits to the inquiry at the outset.

Senator SPECTER: The scope of this hearing is to examine the law on the subject. And the ground rules are that we will not inquire into the factual underpinnings of what is being undertaken here. That is for another committee and for another day.

SHAPIRO: The committee that could examine the factual underpinnings of the surveillance program is the Senate Intelligence Committee. But that committee's chairman has expressed no desire to put the attorney general on the witness stand. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

BRAND: And you can read an explanation of the Bush administration's legal justifications for warrantless wiretapping and the challenges to those arguments from the non-partisan congressional research service at our Web site, NPR.org.

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