Thursday, December 14, 2006

Leahy vows to fight Bush, guard privacy rights

Leahy vows to fight Bush, guard privacy rights
By Thomas Ferraro

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The incoming Democratic chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee promised on Wednesday to combat what he denounced as President George W. Bush's war-time trampling of American rights and laws.

Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont said, if needed, he would seek to subpoena members of the administration to testify at congressional hearings on such matters as stepped-up federal surveillance. Leahy said he might even move to cut off some federal funding or deny Bush confirmation of key nominees.

"The Congress has the ability to make sure ... that the president does what the Constitution requires him to do: to faithfully execute the laws we pass," Leahy said.

"We have ways of doing that between the powers of the purse and, certainly in the Senate, the power of confirmation," Leahy added.

Leahy made the comments after delivering a speech at Georgetown University Law Center where he outlined his agenda for the new Democratic-led Congress set to convene on January 4.

"We have a duty to repair real damage done to our system of government over the last few years," Leahy said in his address.

"This administration has rolled back open government laws and systematically eroded Americans' privacy rights," he added.

"It has brazenly refused to answer the legitimate oversight questions of the public's duly elected representatives, and it has acted outside lawful authority to wiretap Americans without warrants, and to create databanks and dossiers on law-abiding Americans without following the law and without first seeking legal authorization."

A new Washington Post-ABC News poll found that two-thirds of Americans believe U.S. agencies intrude on privacy rights in anti-terror probes but are split on whether such tactics are justified.

Leahy and other congressional Democrats have complained about Bush's tactics, particularly the Republican president's warrant-less domestic spying program. Bush says he has the inherent power to order the surveillance to protect the nation.

Democrats have also complained about Bush claiming a right to ignore or not enforce sections of bills that he signs into law if he believes they impinge on his authority or interpretation of the U.S. Constitution.

While Republicans controlled Congress in recent years, Democrats have been unable to hold hearing or pass bills to remedy what they see as Bush's overreach.

But having won back Congress in last month's elections, Democrats promise oversight hearings on a number of administration actions, such as the Iraq war.

Democrats also will be positioned to push legislation to change the president's policies, though Bush could veto them.

Leahy said he seeks cooperation, not confrontation.

"I look forward to a new Congress where we work together on behalf of all Americans," Leahy said.

Quoting one of the America's founding fathers, he added: "Benjamin Franklin memorably warned that those who would 'give up an essential liberty for temporary security, deserve neither liberty nor security.'"

Leahy said: "Freedom and security must not become mutually exclusive values in America. We can have both, and we must have both."