By Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 31, 2006
Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) charged yesterday that Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales misled the Senate during his confirmation hearing a year ago when he appeared to try to avoid answering a question about whether the president could authorize warrantless wiretapping of U.S. citizens.
In a letter to the attorney general yesterday, Feingold demanded to know why Gonzales dismissed the senator's question about warrantless eavesdropping as a "hypothetical situation" during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in January 2005. At the hearing, Feingold asked Gonzales where the president's authority ends and whether Gonzales believed the president could, for example, act in contravention of existing criminal laws and spy on U.S. citizens without a warrant.
Gonzales said that it was impossible to answer such a hypothetical question but that it was "not the policy or the agenda of this president" to authorize actions that conflict with existing law. He added that he would hope to alert Congress if the president ever chose to authorize warrantless surveillance, according to a transcript of the hearing.
In fact, the president did secretly authorize the National Security Agency to begin warrantless monitoring of calls and e-mails between the United States and other nations soon after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The program, publicly revealed in media reports last month, was unknown to Feingold and his staff at the time Feingold questioned Gonzales, according to a staff member. Feingold's aides developed the 2005 questions based on privacy advocates' concerns about broad interpretations of executive power.
Gonzales was White House counsel at the time the program began and has since acknowledged his role in affirming the president's authority to launch the surveillance effort. Gonzales is scheduled to testify Monday before the Senate Judiciary Committee on the program's legal rationale.
"It now appears that the Attorney General was not being straight with the Judiciary Committee and he has some explaining to do," Feingold said in a statement yesterday.
A Justice Department spokesman said yesterday the department had not yet reviewed the Feingold letter and could not comment.