ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block. There was just one witness today in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, the attorney general of the United States, Alberto Gonzales. He was there to defend the Bush administration's secret wiretapping program. Shortly after 9/11, President Bush authorized the National Security Agency to monitor calls and emails between people in the U.S. and suspected terrorists abroad without a warrant. The administration says it's a powerful tool in the war on terrorism. Critics say the president has overstepped his authority as Commander in Chief. Today's Senate hearing was the first on the matter. NPR's national security correspondent Jackie Northam reports.
JACKIE NORTHAM reporting:
Attorney General Gonzales started the hearing in a traditional way, shaking hands with members of the committee he would be facing. But within minutes, the amicable spirit dissolved, as the first debate got underway. Should Gonzales be sworn in? Chairman Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who's said he is skeptical about the legality of the wiretapping program, deemed that Gonzales didn't need to be sworn in, even though the attorney general said he would. But committee Democrats such as Illinois' Dick Durbin thought he ought to do.
Senator DICK DURBIN (Democrat, Illinois): Mr. Chairman, I move the witness be sworn.
Senator ARLEN SPECTER (Republican, Pennsylvania): The Chairman has ruled. If there is an appeal from the ruling of the Chair, I have a pretty good idea how it's going to come out.
DURBIN: Mr. Chairman, I appeal the ruling of the Chair.
SPECTER: All in favor of the ruling of the Chair say aye.
MULTIPLE COMMITTEE MEMBERS: Aye.
DURBIN: Roll call.
NORTHAM: One of the reasons Durbin and other Democratic senators wanted Gonzales sworn in was because they felt the attorney general misled them about whether the secret wiretapping program existed when he testified during his confirmation hearings last year, months before the program was leaked to the press. Wisconsin senator Russ Feingold took particular issue with this.
Senator RUSS FEINGOLD (Democrat, Wisconsin): Of course, if you had told the truth, maybe that would have jeopardized your nomination. You wanted to be confirmed. And so you let a misleading statement about one of the central issues of your confirmation, your view of executive power, stay on the record until The New York Times revealed the program.
Attorney General ALBERTO GONZALES: Senator, I told the truth then. I'm telling the truth now. You asked about a hypothetical situation of the President of the United States authorizing electronic surveillance in violation of our criminal statutes. That has not occurred.
NORTHAM: 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 9/11 Congress authorized the President to use all necessary force to prevent future attacks. Gonzales defended those points in his opening statement. He said, first, only international communications are authorized for interception.
GONZALES: Second, 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.
NORTHAM: Gonzales said he would not go into details about how the secret eavesdropping program worked, because the enemy could very likely be listening in on these hearings. The administration has often framed the debate about the warrantless wiretapping program around the national security issue. Many Democrats at the hearing wanted to stick to the legal aspect. From what Senator Patrick Leahy said, the biggest concern was that the administration used the Congress' authorization for military force to circumvent the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, which allows for eavesdropping on U.S. citizens if there is a warrant.
Senator PATRICK LEAHY (Democrat, Vermont): That authorization said to capture or kill Osama bin Laden, and to use the American military to do that. It did not authorize domestic surveillance of American citizens.
NORTHAM: 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 few years, several high profile policies and programs only came to light after being leaked to the press, such as interrogation techniques, secret CIA prisons, and the Total Information Awareness Program, which allowed for the collection of information about U.S. citizens. Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein of California pushed Gonzales about whether there were any other similar programs out there that Congress still had not heard about.
Senator DIANNE FEINSTEIN (Democrat, California): Has the President ever invoked this authority with respect to any activity other than the program we're discussing, the NSA Surveillance Program?
GONZALES: Senator, I am not comfortable going down the road of saying yes or no as to what the President has or has not authorized. I'm here to...
FEINSTEIN: Okay. That's fine.
FEINSTEIN: That's fine.
NORTHAM: There were also questions that 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 breach in the administration, particularly in the Justice Department, over the top secret program. Gonzales told Democratic Senator Herbert Kohl of Wisconsin that it's natural to debate such sensitive issues.
GONZALES: Of course there are debates, Senator. Think about, think about the issues that are implicated here. A very complicated Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. It's extremely complicated. The President's inherent authority under the Constitution as Commander in Chief, the Fourth Amendment, the interpretation of the authorization to use military force. You've got a program that's existed over four years. You have multiple lawyers looking at the legal analysis. Of course there's, I mean, this is what lawyers do. We, we disagree. We debate. We argue. At the end of the day, this position represents the position of the Executive Branch on behalf of the President of the United States.
NORTHAM: Still, the Justice Department refused to hand over the legal opinions drawn up in the early days of the wiretapping program. Some Judiciary Committee members pushed to have more hearings and more witnesses. The Senate Intelligence Committee is due to hold two closed-door sessions over the next two weeks.
Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.