Investigates Government Spying Program||
The U.S. Senate is debating whether the Bush administration's program to spy
on American citizens as part of the fight against terrorism is legal.
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and some legal scholars argue that the wiretaps conducted by the
National Security Administration (NSA) violate a law called the
Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), passed by Congress
President Bush, Attorney General
Alberto Gonzales, and other intelligence experts claim the USA Patriot Act gives
them the authority to listen in on domestic conversations, as does the 2002 congressional
authorization to use military force against terrorism.
In 1975, Senator Frank Church, Democrat from Idaho, opened an investigation
into accusations that President Nixon had illegally spied on U.S. citizens.
At the request of the
Nixon administration, the NSA began monitoring the telephone conversations of
civil rights activists and Vietnam War protestors.
After the hearings, the
Church Committee strongly recommended that the NSA should not be allowed to wiretap
domestically unless it had a court-provided warrant.
Three years later,
the Senate approved the FISA law, which created a special Foreign Intelligence
Surveillance Court to approve warrants for domestic wiretapping.
Under this law, the NSA may eavesdrop on a suspected terrorist
for up to 72 hours before applying for a warrant through the FISA
After that period of time,
the government must appear before the 11-member court and prove that the suspect
has ties to a terrorist group or a foreign power.
Since its inception, the FISA court has heard thousands of government
cases, but has rejected only four requests for warrants.
According to the New York Times article that broke the story about the domestic
spying program, President Bush signed an executive order in 2002 that allowed
the NSA to spy on Americans without seeking the FISA court's approval.
Bush administration and other intelligence experts have refused
to reveal specific details about the domestic spying program.
They have insisted, however, that NSA agents only monitor international
discussions between suspected terrorists in the United States
and foreign agents abroad.
"An open discussion of the operational details of this program
would put the lives of Americans at risk," said Attorney
General Alberto Gonzales at the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings.
Much of the current debate, both inside and outside the Senate
hearing rooms, centers on whether or not President Bush and the
NSA acted legally in allowing warrantless eavesdropping.
Gonzales told the NewsHour that as a part of
the post-Sept. 11, 2001 authorization to use military action against terrorism,
"the Congress intended for the president to engage in all of those activities
that are fundamentally incidental to waging war, including electronic surveillance."
Senator Tom Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat who was Senate majority leader at
the time, wrote a recent opinion piece in The Washington Post that said he was
confident that "the 98 senators who voted in favor of authorization of force
against al Qaeda did not believe that they were also voting for warrantless domestic
The Bush administration also has argued for a broad
interpretation of Article II in the Constitution, the section that explains the
powers given to the president.
president has inherent authority given to him directly by the
Constitution ... to take measures to defend the country that include
gathering foreign intelligence," said Bradford Berenson,
a former advisor to President Bush.
Administration officials claim the FISA law hampers
counterterrorism efforts and places unnecessary restrictions on law enforcement.
his recent State of the Union address, President Bush said, "If there are
people inside our country who are talking with al-Qaida, we want to know about
it because we will not sit back and wait to be hit again."
Senator Edward Kennedy, an outspoken opponent of the Bush administration,
claims the president has upset the system of "checks and
balances" by not going to Congress to request a change in
Other critics assert that the
NSA program violates the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits "unreasonable
searches and seizures" and requires "probable cause" before a warrant
can be issued.
In his prepared statement before the Judiciary Committee,
Gonzales explained that the warrantless wiretapping's focus on terrorist suspects
"fully satisfies the reasonableness requirement of the Fourth Amendment."
Compiled by Brian Wolly for NewsHour Extra