Friday, January 20, 2006

Gonzales makes legal case for domestic spying

Gonzales makes legal case for domestic spying

By James Vicini

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Justice Department, facing lawsuits and congressional hearings on President George W. Bush's domestic eavesdropping program, sought on Thursday to persuade congressional leaders the surveillance was lawful and did not violate civil liberties.

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who plans to testify at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on February 6, sent a report to Capitol Hill outlining the legal basis for the National Security Agency's activities that Bush approved after the September 11 attacks.

The highly classified program allows the monitoring of international communications, like telephone and e-mail messages, into and out of the United States of persons linked to al Qaeda or related terrorist groups, without a warrant.

Disclosure last month of the program sparked an outcry by Democrats and Republicans, with many lawmakers questioning whether it violated the U.S. Constitution. Civil liberties groups filed lawsuits challenging the program's legality.

A 1978 law, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, makes it illegal to spy on U.S. citizens in the United States without the approval of a special, secret court. Bush secretly gave the NSA authority to intercept the communications without such approval.

"These NSA activities are lawful in all respects," Gonzalez said in a letter to Senate leaders in releasing the Justice Department's 42-page legal analysis.

"They represent a vital effort by the president to ensure that we have in place an early warning system to detect and prevent another catastrophic terrorist attack on America," he said.


Four top congressional Democrats sent a letter to Vice President Dick Cheney on Thursday, asking the administration to expand beyond a small group of lawmakers briefings about the domestic eavesdropping program to ensure adequate oversight.

"We ask that all future consultations with Congress on this program be open to all members of the Senate and House intelligence committees," said the letter signed by Senate and House Democratic leaders, Nevada Sen. Harry Reid and Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, and the senior Democrats on the Senate and House intelligence panels.

The American Civil Liberties Union, one of the groups challenging the program, rejected the administration's legal justifications.

"Any opinion coming from the Justice Department has to be viewed with a healthy dose of skepticism," said Anthony Romero, the group's executive director. "Congress must hold open, substantive hearings to let the American public know how their privacy was invaded."

Gonzales maintained that Bush's use of his authority to approve the eavesdropping program was "consistent" with the 1978 law.

He said the program "is also fully protective of the civil liberties guaranteed" by the Constitution protecting against unreasonable searches and seizes of evidence.

Besides Bush's constitutional power as commander in chief, Gonzales said the authorization of military force by the U.S. Congress after the September 11 attacks gave Bush the authority for the domestic surveillance.

A January 5 study by the Congressional Research Service, a nonpartisan research arm of Congress, questioned the administration's legal defense of the program but came to no firm conclusion about its legality because so many underlying facts are classified.

The study said it was unlikely Congress had expressly authorized Bush to conduct warrantless surveillance and suggested that Congress had intended the 1978 law to govern electronic surveillance during wartime.

"The history of Congress's active involvement in regulating electronic surveillance within the United States leaves little room for arguing that Congress has accepted by acquiescence the NSA operations here at issue," the study said.

(Additional reporting by David Morgan and JoAnne Allen)