WASHINGTON — U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales on Monday joined President Bush and other administration officials in defending the president’s secret order to allow domestic spying without a court order, telling NBC News that Bush has constitutional and congressional backing for “very limited, targeted” surveillance.
The president, as commander-in-chief, has certain authorities under the constitution, Gonzales said, and those were expanded by Congress to include electronic surveillance a few days after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
The president’s use of that authority is “consistent with law in my judgment,” he said, adding that he had met Sunday night with Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Penn., and other senior lawmakers to explain the authority.
Gonzales emphasized that the domestic spying requires that “one party to the call has to be outside the United States” and believed tied to al-Qaida or some other terror network.
Democratic Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, also on “Today,” called the spying program “an outrageous power grab,” arguing that lawmakers did not have that intention. “It’s against the law,” he insisted.
Feingold and some other lawmakers have called for an investigation into the program.
Rice weighs in
On Sunday, Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice said disclosure of the eavesdropping could jeopardize terrorism investigations.
“The more we get the exposure of these very sensitive programs, the more it undermines our ability to follow terrorists, to know about their activities,” she told Fox News.
Rice said Bush used his authority so “people could not communicate inside the United States about terrorist activity with people outside the United States, leaving us vulnerable to terrorist attack.”
After initially refusing to comment on a New York Times report on the covert program, Bush said Saturday that after the Sept. 11 attacks, he had authorized the National Security Agency “to intercept the international communications of people with known links to al-Qaida and related terrorist organizations.”
A 1978 law, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, makes it illegal to spy on U.S. citizens in the United States without court approval.
On NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Rice said the program was carefully controlled.
Specter wants hearings
Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid disputed Bush’s contention that members of Congress had been informed.
Reid was one of several lawmakers of both parties who have backed a planned hearing on the issue by Specter, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“Congress has not been involved in setting up this program. This is totally a program of the president and the vice president of the United States,” Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said on Fox. He said he was briefed on it only a few months ago, long after the program was reported to have been started.
Specter said he wanted to know what legal authority the White House had used. “Let’s not jump to too many conclusions. Let’s look at it analytically. Let’s have oversight hearings. And let’s find out exactly what went on,” he said on CNN’s “Late Edition.”
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina echoed the call for an investigation and said he knew of no legal basis for the White House to circumvent existing laws. “It is about winning the war, adhering to the values that we’re fighting for. And you can’t set those values aside in the name of expediency,” he said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
McCain, Pelosi comment
Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, said, “I take him (Bush) at his word” that the order was critical to saving lives and consistent with U.S. law and the Constitution.”
“The president, I think, has the right to do this, and yet, I don’t know why he didn’t go” through court procedures, McCain told ABC’s “This Week.”
“I know that the leaders of Congress were consulted, and that’s a very important part of this equation,” McCain said.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, said she was advised of Bush’s decision “shortly after he made it” and had been given several updates.
But Pelosi, in a statement Saturday night, said that “the Bush administration considered these briefings to be notification, not a request for approval. As is my practice whenever I am notified about intelligence activities, I expressed my strong concerns during these briefings.”
On Saturday, the president said he had reauthorized the eavesdropping program 30 times since Sept. 11 and intends to continue it “for as long as our nation faces a continuing threat from al Qaeda and related groups.”
Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.