Gonzales Faces Sharp Questioning on Eavesdropping

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales refers to a copy of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) while answering a question from a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Feb. 6. Reuters hide caption

itoggle caption Reuters

Several Republicans joined Democratic senators on the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday in questioning the legality of secret wiretapping authorized by President Bush.

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales was the lone witness before the committee, which held its first hearing on whether the president had the authority to order secret wiretapping.

President Bush has said that shortly after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, he authorized the highly secretive National Security Agency to monitor calls and e-mails between the United States and suspected terrorists abroad — without a warrant. Administration officials maintain it is a powerful tool in the war on terrorism. Critics say the president has overstepped his authority as commander-in-chief.

A Look at the Controversy

Throughout the hearing, Gonzales kept coming back to two key points: That the president has the authority to order the warrantless eavesdropping program under the Constitution as commander-in-chief; and that, after Sept. 11, Congress authorized the president to use all necessary force to prevent future attacks. Gonzales defended those points in his opening statement. He said only international communications are authorized for interception.

And he said the program is triggered "only when a career professional at the NSA has reasonable grounds to believe that one of the parties to a communication is a member or agent of al Qaeda or an affiliated terrorist organization.

"As the president has said, if you're talking with al Qaeda, we want to know what you're saying," Gonzales said.

Gonzales said he would not go into details about how the secret eavesdropping program worked, because the enemy could very likely be listening to the hearings.

The administration has often framed the debate about the warrantless wiretapping program around national security. Many Democrats at the hearing wanted to probe the legal aspect. Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy said the biggest concern was that the administration used the congressional authorization for military force to circumvent the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which allows for eavesdropping on U.S. citizens if there is a warrant.

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

The other thread that Democratic senators picked up was that only a few, select members of Congress were informed about the eavesdropping program. Over the past two years, several high-profile policies and programs only came to light after being leaked to the press: new policies regarding the detention and interrogation of enemy combatants, secret CIA prisons, and the total information awareness program which allowed for the collection of information about U.S. citizens.

There were also questions which went unanswered about who had access to any information that was discovered during the wiretaps, how long that information was kept, and whether there was a split in the administration, particularly in the Justice Department, over the top secret program.

Chairman Arlen Specter asked Gonzales if he'd object if former Attorney General John Ashcroft testified in a subsequent hearing; Gonzales said he didn't mind. Recent media reports say that Ashcroft and his deputy had doubts about the program. Gonzales, who appeared frustrated with the media reports, told Republican Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona that its natural to debate such sensitive issues.

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