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The Senate Judiciary Committee grilled Attorney General Alberto Gonzales Thursday about the administration's decision to shift authority of its warrantless communication surveillance program to a secret court. Guests discuss the implications of the policy change.
Today, Judiciary Committee senators demanded more details from Attorney General Alberto Gonzales about the Bush administration's change of course on its wiretapping of international communications with at least one domestic connection.
SEN. ARLEN SPECTER (R), Pennsylvania: The United States and the administration have paid a heavy price for not acting sooner.
Warrants to eavesdrop now will be sought from the special court originally created to approve international wiretaps, under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. It's called the FISA court.
SEN. RUSS FEINGOLD (D), Wisconsin: That is a stunning and, I would say, long overdue change of direction.
In a letter yesterday to the Judiciary Committee's chairman, Democrat Patrick Leahy, and the committee's ranking member, Republican Arlen Specter, Attorney General Gonzales wrote, "Any electronic surveillance that was occurring will now be conducted subject to the supervision of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court."
Begun in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the program ran more than five years without court supervision. The administration said the inherent authority of the president to protect the nation made warrants unnecessary.
The president vigorously defended the eavesdropping in public.
GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: It has been effective in disrupting the enemy while safeguarding our civil liberties. This program has targeted those with known links to al-Qaida.
But the program will no longer exist in its old form, run by the executive branch alone, according to the attorney general.
ALBERTO GONZALES, U.S. Attorney General:
There will be no, quote, "terrorist surveillance program." All electronic surveillance, as defined under FISA, that will all be done under an order issued by a judge on the FISA court.
But the attorney general repeatedly said this administration didn't believe it was required to get warrants from the FISA court.
We commenced down this road five years ago because of the belief that we could not do what we felt was necessary to protect this country under FISA. That is why the president relied upon his inherent authority under the Constitution.
New York Democrat Chuck Schumer had been a critic of the secret surveillance program.
SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D), New York: You don't think you're legally required to go to the FISA court, that is correct? Correct? Just please answer yes or no.
Senator, we believe — my belief is, is that the actions taken by the administration, by this president, were lawful in the past, but moving forward, our electronic surveillance collection is going to be conducted under FISA.
Schumer asked about the breadth of the warrants now sought from the court.
SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER:
Are the new FISA orders directed at individuals, at entire groups of individuals, or even broader brush than that?
Senator, I am not at liberty to talk about those kinds of specifics because it would require me to get into operational details that I think I should not do in this session.
I'm not asking you…
What I can tell you, Senator, is that they meet the legal requirements under FISA.
Other than that, the attorney general would give no further details on the surveillance warrants in open committee.
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