WASHINGTON — House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi says President Bush should have used his extensive authority under the law to monitor suspected terrorists rather than approve the National Security Agency’s disputed monitoring program.
“I would not want any president — Democrat or Republican — to have the expanded power the administration is claiming in this case,” Pelosi, D-Calif., said in an interview with The Associated Press.
Pelosi did not say the NSA’s surveillance program was illegal. But she said the administration should follow the procedures in the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which allows government lawyers to ask a secretive court for warrants for surveillance in the United States during national security investigations.
“If you say ... this is for a narrow universe of calls, there is absolutely no issue with getting a FISA warrant for that,” said Pelosi, who was the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee and has been involved for the past 13 years in overseeing U.S. intelligence agencies.
“It is when you go beyond that, that it becomes a challenge,” she said in the interview Friday. “The president says he is not going beyond that, so why can’t he obey the law?”
Pelosi declined to offer specifics about warrants granted, but she said the administration already has “the mother of all FISAs, which enables them to do a lot.”
Shortly after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Bush approved a program that allows warrantless monitoring by the NSA of the international communications of people on U.S. soil who may be linked to al-Qaida.
Pelosi has spoken publicly about the need for congressional oversight on this program. While she has been briefed several times by the administration, Pelosi has said that does not mean she approved of the surveillance.
She wants Congress and the president to have the best intelligence available, yet broadly questions the legality of the domestic surveillance.
Administration fights back
The Justice Department, in the administration’s most recent defense of the NSA program, issued on Friday a six-point “Myth vs. Reality” rebuttal of criticism leveled against Bush’s action. It claims that Bush has legal authority through his position as commander in chief as well as through a congressional resolution passed shortly after the 2001 terrorist attacks.
The administration also resists descriptions of the program as domestic spying, arguing that the communications under surveillance involve an overseas party. And it contends that the program is consistent with FISA, which the administration suggests moves too slowly for some monitoring.
In her first extensive comments on the NSA program, Pelosi offered additional details during the interview about her concerns, including her belief that the administration is making weak arguments to justify the monitoring.
‘Get more lawyers’
Pelosi said if new technology is making it difficult for U.S. authorities to monitor communications, then Bush should ask for updates in the law to keep up with the advances.
If the FISA court process is too laborious, “get more lawyers, add more people to it,” Pelosi said. “We are only talking about the Constitution of the United States.”
Pelosi said she told administration officials that several criteria must be met “to even consider” such a program. She said the information must be “so rich and so valuable” that it cannot be obtained any other way and there is “absolutely no time” to get a warrant.
The monitoring is not as simple as Bush, his aides and administration officials have explained, Pelosi said. She said Congress must have a full set of facts in hearings to determine “how far down the road” the administration went.
For example, Pelosi did not know if a reporter covering the war in Iraq would be caught in the surveillance net.
If Congress’s intelligence and judiciary committees fail to investigate thoroughly, she said, “it will be in dereliction of its duties.”
A Senate hearing on the program is set for Feb. 6. The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., has written Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, the former White House counsel, about subjects he wants to see addressed:
- Why did the White House not ask Congress for changes to a 1978 foreign surveillance law?
- Why didn’t the administration go to an established intelligence court to get approval for the monitoring?
- Will the White House consider doing that now?
Gonzales has agreed to answer questions about the legal basis of the program, but not its operations.
Pelosi tried to walk carefully between making a case for national security and protecting civil liberties.
She rejected recent comments by Ken Mehlman, chairman of the Republican Party, that Pelosi and Democratic Party leader Howard Dean would want the NSA to hang up when terrorists dial their sleeper cells.
“It is a disservice to a very serious debate about security and liberty for him to resort to that kind of a statement,” Pelosi said.
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