Gonzales defends Bush's revised domestic spying

By Thomas Ferraro and Deborah Charles
Reuters
Thursday, January 18, 2007; 3:27 PM

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales fended off lawmakers on Thursday who demanded to know why the administration took more than five years to obtain court approval of its war-time domestic spying.

"I somewhat take issue ... with (Republican) Senator Arlen Specter's innuendo that this is something we could have pulled off the shelf and done in a matter of days or weeks," Gonzales told the Senate Judiciary Committee. "This is a very complicated application. We worked on it a long time."

Gonzales announced an abrupt end to the warrantless electronic surveillance program on Wednesday, just two weeks after Democrats took control of the U.S. Congress, promising investigations and legislation to bring the program in line with the law.

Critics have charged that President George W. Bush overstepped his authority after the September 11 attacks with the domestic spying program as well as other measures such as holding terrorism suspects indefinitely without charges, and interrogations that some said amounted to torture.

Gonzales said the Justice Department had recently reached an agreement with a secret court, which gives out warrants under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, that would allow swift approval to monitor international communications.

Specter of Pennsylvania, who headed the Judiciary Committee when Congress was controlled by Republicans the past two years, said the administration should have moved faster to get court approval of the spying.

"SENSE OF URGENCY"

"I cannot help but conclude that there hasn't been a sufficient sense of urgency on behalf of the Department of Justice to get this job done faster," Specter said.

Gonzales said after the 2001 attacks, the administration looked at the 1978 FISA law, which requires court approval to spy on U.S. citizens inside the United States.

"We all concluded, there's no way we can do what we believe we have to do to protect the country under the strict reading of FISA," he said.

Senators demanded details about the agreement the Justice Department reached with the FISA court. They cited a letter from FISA's presiding judge stating that the court would have no objections to giving the committee confidential information, but that it would be up to Justice to provide it.

Gonzales was noncommittal, prompting Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, to ask: "Are you saying you might object to the court giving us decisions that you've publicly announced?"

Gonzales said, "There's going to be information about operational details about how we're doing this that we want to keep confidential."

Bush ordered the National Security Agency in late 2001 to conduct the program to eavesdrop on international phone calls and e-mails of U.S. citizens without a warrant, if those wiretaps were made to track suspected al Qaeda operatives.

When the program was first disclosed in December 2005, it drew fire from Democrats and some Republicans in Congress who charged it violated the rights of law-abiding citizens.

Bush insisted he had inherent war-time presidential powers to order the spying program. However, Gonzales said the Justice Department stepped up efforts to bring it under FISA.

In a letter to congressional leaders on Wednesday, Gonzales said the program would not be renewed. Instead electronic surveillance would be subject to approval from the secret but independent FISA court, as demanded by critics.

Leahy told Gonzales, "The issue has never been whether to monitor suspected terrorists, but doing it legally and with proper checks and balances." Leahy added, "This reversal is a good first step."




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