Monday, February 13, 2006
By Michael Isikoff, Mark Hosenball and Evan Thomas -- Newsweek
Feb. 20, 2006 issue - The attorney general of the United States was playing rope-a-dope. Why, the senators wanted to know, did the White House circumvent a law passed by Congress, the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which requires intelligence services to obtain search warrants before intercepting international communications inside the United States? Alberto Gonzales was evasive and bland. Speaking in legalisms, he offered few details about the National Security Agency’s sweeping post-9/11 eavesdropping program. After a series of senatorial questions had gone essentially unanswered, Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont interjected, “Of course, I’m sorry, Mr. Attorney General, I forgot: you can’t answer any questions that might be relevant to this.”
Such sarcasm might be expected of a Democrat like Leahy. But Gonzales also came under tough questioning from four of the 10 Republican senators on the Judiciary Committee, including its chairman, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. At the hearing, Gonzales argued, as President George W. Bush has several times before, that Congress gave the executive branch the power to wiretap when it passed a resolution, right after 9/11, authorizing the “use of force” to battle terrorism. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a conservative Republican, called that argument “very dangerous in terms of its application to the future. When I voted for it, I never envisioned that I was giving to this president or any other president the ability to go around FISA carte blanche.”
It is not yet clear how the public feels about warrantless wiretapping. As usual, the answer depends on the question. Asked if they approve of government eavesdropping on U.S. citizens, most people say no; asked if they approve of eavesdropping to catch terrorists, most people say yes. More-sophisticated polls show a roughly even split in opinion, so it’s hard to know how the issue will cut in the 2006 elections. But there is no question that the solons of Capitol Hill—and, increasingly, those in the Republican Party—are growing restless and ready to challenge the authority of the Bush White House.
In part, congressional egos and prerogatives are on the line. Members of both parties feel bullied by the sometimes high-handed treatment they get from the Bush administration, particularly from Vice President Dick Cheney, the outspoken avatar of executive power.
Full Newsweek story.
With Richard Wolffe and Holly Bailey
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