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Gonzales Echoes Defense of Wiretaps

By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales argued yesterday that the requirements of a secret intelligence court are too cumbersome for rapid pursuit of suspected terrorists, repeating the administration's position that warrantless wiretapping authorized by President Bush does not violate the Constitution or federal law.

Gonzales's speech at Georgetown University's law school was part of the Bush administration's effort to defend a program that allows the National Security Agency to intercept calls to and from the United States without warrants. He used the appearance to echo statements made Monday by Bush, who referred to the effort as a "terrorist surveillance program" and characterized it as a crucial tool against violent militants.

"It is an early-warning system with only one purpose: to detect and prevent the next attack on the United States," Gonzales said. "It is imperative for national security reasons that we can detect reliably, immediately and without delay whenever communications associated with al Qaeda enter or leave the United States."

Gonzales's appearance, which was part of a three-day White House campaign to defend the NSA program, was punctuated by a silent protest from more than a dozen students who turned their backs to Gonzales, who continued to speak without acknowledging them and did not take questions afterward.

Five of the students wore black pillowcases over their heads -- an apparent reference to the mistreatment of U.S. detainees overseas -- and held a banner roughly paraphrasing Benjamin Franklin: "Those who would sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither."

Many experts on intelligence and national security law from both parties have said that the president overstepped his authority in ordering the eavesdropping shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 specifically prohibits such domestic monitoring without a warrant. Congressional Research Service analyses also have raised questions about the justifications for the spying and limited notification of Congress. The Senate Judiciary Committee is planning to hold hearings on the issue next month.

Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said yesterday that Gonzales and other administration officials are engaging in "revisionist history" by portraying a congressional resolution authorizing military force against al Qaeda as justification for the NSA program. A group of relatives of victims of the 2001 attacks, the September 11th Advocates, also issued a news release alleging that the "Bush administration has continually used 9/11 as an excuse to break the laws of our great nation."

But Gonzales, drawing on a 42-page Justice Department "white paper" issued last week, said the eavesdropping follows a long tradition of wartime surveillance and is conducted under the president's authority. Although FISA includes emergency provisions allowing short-term wiretapping without a warrant, Gonzales said the law would overly burden the government when it needs to respond quickly.

David D. Cole, a Georgetown law professor and frequent administration critic who appeared on a panel after the speech, said Bush clearly violated FISA by authorizing warrantless domestic spying. Another panelist also criticized the administration, while two defended its position.

"He is free to go and ask Congress to change the law," Cole said. "He is not free, as he did here, to order executive branch officials to violate that law."

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