Attorney general: Bush blocked review of spy program

Alberto Gonzales also presses for controversial law that would permit secret court to review NSA spy program.

WASHINGTON--Attorney General Alberto Gonzales on Tuesday resumed his defense of the Bush administration's warrantless wiretapping program, while admitting that the president prevented a review of the program earlier this year by Justice Department lawyers.

Gonzales reiterated the president's recent pledge to submit the National Security Agency program to review by a secret court as long as Congress passes a new law that satisfies the White House's demands.

"At the end of the day, we will have a decision by the court saying what the president is doing is, in fact, constitutional," Gonzales said in his second appearance before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee here since the secret surveillance came to light.

Gonzales said Bush refused to give the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility access to the classified program. The office announced in May that it was unable to conduct an investigation into the role department lawyers had played in developing the National Security Agency's eavesdropping program, which targets overseas telephone calls and the e-mails of Americans suspected of having ties to terrorists.

Several areas of inquiry
Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, asked Gonzales why Bush had declined access. "Many other lawyers in the Department of Justice had clearance. Why not OPR?" he asked.

Noting the importance of the program, Gonzales said: "The president of the United States makes decisions about who is ultimately given access."

The official faced more than three hours of at-times stern questioning from both political parties on a wide range of topics, ranging from funding for local law enforcement at the nation's Mexican borders to how the administration investigates leaks of sensitive information to the press.

The topic of the NSA spy program weighed heavy on the minds of many committee members, particularly Democrats inflamed about a draft bill negotiated by the Bush administration and Specter.

Specter said last week that the president agreed to submit the NSA program for review provided that Congress passed a "compromise" version of that legislation, which has not yet formally been made public.

Civil liberties groups have assailed the version they were able to obtain, calling it a "sham." They've criticized it on a number of fronts, such as failing to require that the current surveillance programs or any future ones be vetted by a court, sweeping all legal proceedings involving such eavesdropping to the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, and eroding Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches and seizures by requiring less information before such activities can gain approval.

Democrats take aim
In a letter to Specter on Tuesday, the committee's eight Democrats urged him to hold another hearing on the new version of the bill before bringing it to a vote. Among other concerns, they said they had "little doubt" that "many types of surveillance that now require a warrant will no longer require one if your bill is enacted."

Sen. Patrick Leahy, the Vermont Democrat who serves as committee co-chairman, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, pressed the attorney general on why he didn't decide to submit the program for review earlier.

"You talk about the enormous authority he has...There's nothing to stop him from doing that today, is there?" Leahy asked.

"The president could submit an application, but the court may not have any jurisdiction or authority to rule on the application," Gonzales said. He was referring to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which has the authority to approve individual wiretapping requests when at least one end of the communication is outside the United States.

Specter attempted to downplay the criticism of his compromise proposal and concessions to the president. Whatever bill the Congress may pass, he said, it can't override the president's wartime powers under the Constitution.

He also dismissed complaints that the statute wouldn't bind any president to have surveillance programs reviewed by courts. If the president "fulfills his commitment" to take the program to the secret court, "a future president could look back and see what President Bush did," Specter said. "He wouldn't be bound by what President Bush did, but it would be a very solid precedent."

Reuters contributed to this report.

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