TODAY.AZ / Politics

Democrats scold White House over spying

21 January 2006 [16:47] - TODAY.AZ
Democratic senators took the Bush administration to task Friday for four years of domestic spying, while the president fought back with a planned embrace of the intelligence agency that is carrying out the effort.

In preparation for Senate hearings, Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts noted that President Bush asserted in 2004 that "when we're talking about chasing down terrorists, we're talking about getting a court order before we do so", Pete Yost, Associated Press Writer and AP White House reporter Deb Riechmann report.

That Bush statement came at the same time the National Security Agency was engaging - at the president's direction — in warrantless eavesdropping on Americans.

"If President Bush can make his own rules for domestic surveillance, Big Brother has run amok," Kennedy said in a statement.

Introducing a proposed Senate resolution, Kennedy and Sen. Patrick Leahy (news, bio, voting record) of Vermont rejected White House assertions that congressional action after Sept. 11 authorized warrantless eavesdropping inside the United States.

A joint resolution of Congress authorized the use of force against those responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks, but it "says nothing about domestic electronic surveillance," Kennedy declared.

Pushing back, Bush plans a Wednesday visit to the NSA, where he will reassert his claim that he has the constitutional authority to let intelligence officials listen in on international phone calls of Americans with suspected ties to terrorists.

"We are stepping up our efforts to educate the American people," White House press secretary Scott McClellan said of the trip to the NSA, based at Fort Meade in Maryland. McClellan called the program "a critical tool that helps us save lives and prevent attacks. It is limited and targeted to al-Qaida communications, with the focus being on detection and prevention."

Sen. John Cornyn (news, bio, voting record), R-Texas, said the new audio tape of Osama bin Laden threatening attacks on American soil "is a vivid reminder why we must continue to intercept communications between al-Qaida overseas and potential operatives in the United States."

On Monday, deputy national intelligence director Mike Hayden, who led the National Security Agency when the program began in October 2001, will speak on the issue at the National Press Club.

On Tuesday, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is delivering a speech on the program in Washington.

Gonzales also plans to testify Feb. 6 about the secret program before the Senate Judiciary Committee where Kennedy and Leahy are members.

House Democrats said Bush has committed a crime in authorizing the spying and that House Republicans have abdicated their responsibilities by refusing to hold hearings.

Rep. John Conyers (news, bio, voting record), the House Judiciary Committee's top Democrat, and other Democrats met in a basement room of a House office building Friday to hear a panel of lawyers and activists discuss whether Bush had committed an impeachable offense.

Meanwhile, the Justice Department on Wednesday issued a 42-page legal justification for the eavesdropping program, an expanded version of a document the agency sent Congress last month.

"Making their argument longer didn't make it any better," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (news, bio, voting record), D-Md., a Judiciary Committee member. He said Bush's secret approval of warrantless eavesdropping had made congressional debate on the Patriot Act meaningless.

The NSA's warrantless eavesdropping program is "an intelligence operation in search of a legal rationale," said George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley.

"What the president ordered in this case was a crime," added Turley, who said House Republicans are establishing a terrible precedent by not holding oversight hearings.

To fend off criticism, Deputy White House Chief of Staff Karl Rove and White House spokesman Scott McClellan referred to statements by John Schmidt, a Clinton administration associate attorney general who defended the program.

Schmidt wrote last month in the Chicago Tribune that Bush's authorization of the NSA surveillance is consistent with court decisions and Justice Department positions under prior presidents.


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