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U.S.: Senators Take Hard Line On President's Spying Program

U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in Washington today (epa) U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has appeared before the Senate to defend President George W. Bush's domestic spying program. Without a court-issued warrant, government espionage within the United States is forbidden by the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA. But Bush has insisted that he is allowed to do so under powers granted by the U.S. Constitution and by the Senate resolution that authorized him to go to war against Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan after the attacks of 11 September 2001. On 6 February, before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Gonzales gave a more detailed explanation of the president's position.

WASHINGTON, 6 February 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Like the president, Judiciary Committee Chairman Senator Arlen Specter is a member of the Republican Party. But Specter still said he was "skeptical" of the program's legality.

Specter told Gonzales that under the Foreign Surveillance Act, there is a special court whose very purpose is to consider warrants for domestic surveillance, and which can pass legal judgment on whether a president is allowed to ignore the law during wartime.

The senator told Gonzales: "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? What do you have to lose if you're right?"

Instead of answering the question, Gonzales merely replied that the administration is exploring all ways of fighting the war against Al-Qaeda.

'We Want To Know What You're Saying'

But Gonzales did make it clear that he believes that a ruling on the legality of Bush’s decision is unnecessary. The surveillance program, he told the committee, is permitted under the president's constitutional authority as commander in chief, by various laws passed by Congress, and by several federal appeals courts in previous cases of presidential powers.

Gonzales also tried to put less sinister face on the program, saying the administration and the National Security Agency, or NSA -- the secretive bureau that monitors international communications -- is careful to ensure that no one is put under surveillance without good reason.

"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 are talking with Al-Qaeda, we want to know what you are saying.' "

Bush Acted 'Unilaterally'

Specter wasn't the only member of the committee to express skepticism.

Senator Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from the New England state of Vermont and vice-chairman of the panel, said there was no need for the president to have started this program outside the law and without the consent of Congress.

Leahy told Gonzales that after the 11 September attacks, Bush could have asked Congress to loosen some of the restrictions in FISA, and Congress probably would have given him everything he wanted. Instead, he said, Bush acted unilaterally.

"If you believe you need new laws, then come and tell us. If Congress agrees, we'll amend the law,” Leahy said. “You did not even attempt to persuade Congress to amend the law [so] you are required to follow the law as it is written. That is true of the president, just as it is true of me and you and every American."

Gonzales argued that Bush was doing his duty to protect the American people from further harm, rather than strike blindly at Al-Qaeda or simply respond to further attacks.

"In the wake of 9/11 (the attacks of September 11), [President Bush] told the American people that to carry out [his] solemn responsibility, he would use every lawful means at his disposal to prevent another attack,” the attorney general said. “One of those means is the Terrorist Surveillance Program. It is an early warning system designed for the 21st century."