Thursday, March 09, 2006

Gonzales: NSA program doesn't need a law

Gonzales: NSA program doesn't need a law

WASHINGTON (AP) — Attorney General Alberto Gonzales made clear Wednesday that the White House is not seeking congressional action to inscribe the National Security Agency's monitoring into U.S. law, even as members of Congress negotiate with the Bush administration about legislation.

Gonzales maintained the program is legal the way it is.

"There's a general consensus — quite frankly — that this is a needed program" designed to listen to al-Qaeda's communications, Gonzales told the National Association of Attorneys General Wednesday. "The concern I think that people have, which is a natural concern, is that, is this a limited program?"

Gonzales said administration officials have gone a long way in reassuring lawmakers about the NSA's operations. Over four years, he said, the administration has met "with select congressional leadership on both sides of the aisle about the scope of this program — everything that we're doing related to this program."

California Rep. Jane Harman, the House Intelligence Committee's top Democrat, said Gonzales has personally given her similar assurances. But generally she has "become increasingly skeptical over time about a lot of things I have been hearing." Harman declined to elaborate.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, the former top Democrat on the intelligence panel, has publicly questioned what the congressional leaders don't know. Her spokeswoman, Jennifer Crider, said Republicans have been unwilling to perform oversight of the administration.

"Since the members were not all briefed at the same time or place, it's not possible to know whether the same information was given to each," Crider said.

Aides to West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller, the Senate Intelligence Committee's top Democrat, noted that he visited the NSA all day Friday — with 450 questions he wanted answered. He's complained about the briefings he received before that session, saying they consisted of intelligence officials rushing through flip-charts.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., remains the most skeptical Republican in Congress. He's said he intends to call Gonzales up to his committee for a second appearance to testify about other classified intelligence programs that the attorney general hinted at in a recent letter.

Specter also had been pressing for a hearing with former Attorney General John Ashcroft and his deputy, but has abandoned that request.

Among other issues, lawmakers wanted to know about a 2004 dustup over the surveillance between the White House and Justice officials, including Deputy Attorney General James Comey. It reportedly got so serious that White House Chief of Staff Andy Card and then-White House counsel Gonzales visited Ashcroft in the hospital to discuss the concerns of his deputies.

Specter hinted that the administration opposed the testimony of Ashcroft and Comey.

"I've talked to both of those individuals and understandably they would require administration consent. I do not believe that we would be successful, were they to testify, to find what happened in the reported conversations in the hospital," Specter said.

Specter was also critical of a terrorist surveillance bill — soon to be introduced by Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, and other moderate lawmakers — that would allow the government to monitor the international calls of U.S. residents for 45 days without a warrant. The White House has called that approach a "generally sound measure."

Specter is planning to offer his own proposal that would require a federal intelligence court to vouch for the program's constitutionality every 45 days.

Democrats are calling for more oversight and may not embrace either approach.

"So little is known about this illegal program that it's akin to legislating in the dark," said Tracy Schmaler, Democratic spokeswoman for the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Also Wednesday, in response to a judge's order, the Bush administration released a fraction of the documents requested under the Freedom of Information Act by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Electronic Privacy Information Center and the National Security Archive. The administration asked for four additional months to process additional classified materials.

The release included e-mail exchanges between Justice officials about the program's legal justification. One official said the department's arguments had "a slightly after-the-fact quality or feeling to them," according to the privacy center.

In a statement, the center's general counsel, David Sobel, said the administration's actions show a continuing resistance to public scrutiny on the NSA program.

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