WASHINGTON—Facing bipartisan skepticism, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales on Monday defended the Bush administration's secret eavesdropping program as "vital to the national defense," but he declined to answer questions about what other anti-terrorism operations the president may have authorized without court approval.
During nearly seven hours of questioning, Democrats and several Republicans criticized the administration's legal foundation for a spying program that allows intercepting international communications of U.S. residents without warrants.
Senators urged Gonzales and President Bush to seek changes in existing law to accommodate the spying operations, to seek approval of spying cases from a secret federal court that oversees such cases and to explain the program in more detail to members of Congress.
Gonzales argued that the existing law regulating international surveillance "presents challenges" and that Bush derives his authority to order wiretaps without warrants from the powers given a president by the Constitution and from Congress' resolution in 2001 authorizing the use of force to combat terrorism.
"I don't think (Congress) can measure the president's inherent authority ... without knowing what you're doing," said Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. "Just can't do it because that authority is not unlimited, it is not a blank check."
Gonzales' defense of the operation came on the first day of hearings by the committee into the legality of Bush's decision to authorize secret electronic surveillance of U.S. residents who are suspected of communicating with terrorism suspects or al-Qaida affiliates overseas.
When Gonzales argued that Bush wasn't circumventing a 1978 law, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which requires court approval before eavesdropping on U.S. soil, Specter became exasperated.
"That just defies logic and plain English," he said.
At another point, Specter told Gonzales: "The al-Qaida threat is very weighty, but so is the equilibrium of our constitutional system."
Pressed by other senators on whether Bush is using the same justification to sidestep other laws in the name of combating terrorism, Gonzales replied: "I can't talk about operations matters that are not before the committee today."
Democrats and some Republicans persistently questioned Gonzales' claim that the use-of-force resolution gave the president the broad powers that the administration has claimed since The New York Times revealed the existence of the eavesdropping program in December. They urged Gonzales to seek changes in the law to bring the National Security Agency program in line with congressional desires and to recognize Congress' constitutional authority as an equal branch of government.
"This statutory force resolution argument that you're making is very dangerous in terms of its application for the future," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. "When I voted for it, I never envisioned that I was giving to this president or any other president the ability to go around FISA (the 1978 law) carte blanche."
Gonzales counseled against changing the law, arguing that doing so could reveal secret details of the operation and further hamstring the president.
"The legislative process may result in attempted restrictions upon the president's inherent constitutional authority and he may not be able to protect the country in the way that he believes he has the authority to do under the Constitution," Gonzales said.
Among the committee's Republican senators who questioned that conclusion were Graham, Specter, Mike DeWine of Ohio and Sam Brownback of Kansas.
Although Democrats were unanimously unsympathetic to Gonzales' position, the bipartisan grilling seemed to deflate Bush's argument that the criticism of his rationale for the program has been partisan and politically motivated.
The committee did engage in a party-line dispute over whether Gonzales should testify under oath. Specter refused to swear in the attorney general, prompting objections from Democrats. Specter's ruling was upheld, with the majority Republicans backing him.
The hearing was designed to probe the legal underpinnings of the NSA spying program, not its operational details. But senators asked Gonzales repeatedly whether the president had used the same justification to sidestep other laws governing searches of U.S. residents, including opening mail or planting listening devices in homes, or to authorize covert action intended to influence U.S. politics, public opinion or the news media.
"I am not comfortable going down the road of saying yes or no as to what the president has or has not authorized," Gonzales said in response to a typical question from Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.
"My honest view is that this program is much bigger and much broader than you want people to know," Feinstein said at one point.
Gonzales protested, saying that administration officials had briefed the so-called Gang of Eight: the bipartisan leadership of the House of Representatives and Senate and the Republican chairmen and top Democrats of the House and Senate intelligence committees. He said none of the eight had suggested changing the law to accommodate the operation.
Later, Feinstein said she'd seek a change in the law so that it requires the executive branch to notify all members of the intelligence committees.
Senators dogged Gonzales with questions about the program's scope, including whether information on innocent U.S. citizens or residents is being discarded.
"I can't talk about specifics about it, but information is collected, information is retained and information is disseminated in a way to protect the privacy interests of all Americans," he said in response to Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis.
Gonzales refused to answer questions about the program's scope, including how many wiretaps have been undertaken, how many people have been affected, what triggers a wiretap and what happens to the data.
When Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., asked whether the president's power gave him authority to eavesdrop on political enemies, Gonzales replied: "We're not going to do that. That's not going to happen."
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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