Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales was challenged yesterday by members of the Senate Judiciary Committee on why the Bush administration took more than five years to seek oversight by an independent court for its domestic terrorist-surveillance program.
“For years, this administration has engaged in warrantless wiretapping of Americans contrary to the law,” said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat and committee chairman. “I welcome the president’s change of course to not reauthorize this program and to, instead, seek approval for all wiretaps from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, as the law requires.
“This reversal is a good first step, but there are still several outstanding questions that remain,” Mr. Leahy said. “The president must also fully inform Congress and the American people about the contours of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court order authorizing this surveillance program and of the program itself.”
Mr. Gonzales announced Wednesday that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court would monitor Justice Department intercepts of international calls involving terrorism suspects in this country. He said an order establishing oversight was issued Jan. 10 and it gave the department, which conducts the program through the National Security Agency, the “necessary speed and agility while providing substantial advantages.”
The announcement was considered a major concession for President Bush, who since the secret program was publicly disclosed in 2005 has argued that he did not need — or want — to use the special intelligence court.
Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the committee’s ranking Republican, said the administration could and should have moved quicker to get court approval. “I cannot help but conclude that there hasn’t been a sufficient sense of urgency on behalf of the Department of Justice to get this job done faster,” he said.
Mr. Specter, who has been critical of the White House for its refusal to disclose details of the surveillance program, has described the policy as a “clear-cut violation” of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).
Mr. Gonzales challenged Mr. Specter’s statement that the matter should have been handled faster, saying the issue was not something “we could have pulled off the shelf and done in a matter of days or weeks.” He called the process “a very complicated application,” but added that it will enable the government to intercept calls to and from those in this country with suspected terrorists ties, subject to the approval of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
He said the court orders would “allow the necessary speed and agility the government needs to protect our nation from the terrorist threat.”
Both Democrats and Republicans on the committee demanded more information about the court’s oversight role, citing a letter from FISA’s presiding judge saying the court would have no objection to giving the panel confidential information, but it would have to be provided by the Justice Department.
Mr. Gonzales said only that there would be “information about operational details about how we’re doing this that we want to keep confidential.”