The White House accused former Vice President Al Gore of hypocrisy Tuesday for his assertion that President Bush broke the law by eavesdropping on Americans without court approval.
“If Al Gore is going to be the voice of the Democrats on national security matters, we welcome it,” White House press secretary Scott McClellan said in a swipe at the Democrat, who lost the 2000 election to Bush only after the Supreme Court intervened.
Gore, in a speech Monday, called for an independent investigation of the administration program that he says broke the law by listening in — without warrants — on Americans suspected of talking with terrorists abroad.
Gore called the program, authorized by President Bush, “a threat to the very structure of our government” and charged that the administration acted without congressional authority and made a “direct assault” on a federal court set up to authorize requests to eavesdrop on Americans.
McClellan also said Sen. Hillary Clinton was “out of bounds” when she said Monday that the Bush administration was “one of the worst” in U.S. history and compared the Republican-controlled House of Representatives to a “plantation” where dissenting voices are squelched.
Asked about the criticism coming from the two high-profile Democrats on the same day, McClellan said, “Well, I think we know, one tends to like or enjoy grabbing headlines; the other one — sounds like the political season may be starting early.”
Clinton is running for re-election to the Senate this year and is a potential candidate for the 2008 presidential race.
Two new legal challenges
Meanwhile, two civil liberties groups — the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights — filed federal lawsuits Tuesday seeking to block the eavesdropping program, which they called unconstitutional electronic surveillance of American citizens.
McClellan said the Clinton-Gore administration had engaged in warrantless physical searches, and he cited an FBI search of the home of CIA turncoat Aldrich Ames without permission from a judge. He said Clinton’s deputy attorney general, Jamie Gorelick, had testified before Congress that the president had the inherent authority to engage in physical searches without warrants.
“I think his hypocrisy knows no bounds,” McClellan said of Gore.
But at the time of the Ames search in 1993 and when Gorelick testified a year later, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act required warrants for electronic surveillance for intelligence purposes, but did not cover physical searches. The law was changed to cover physical searches in 1995 under legislation that Clinton supported and signed.
Attorney general weighs in
Gore said Attorney General Alberto Gonzales should name a special counsel to investigate the program, saying Gonzales had an “obvious conflict of interest” as a member of the Bush Cabinet as well as the nation’s top law enforcement officer.
Gonzales, who has agreed to testify publicly at a Senate hearing on the program, defended the surveillance on cable news talk shows Monday night.
“This program has been reviewed carefully by lawyers at the Department of Justice and other agencies,” Gonzales said on Fox News Channel’s “Hannity & Colmes.” “We firmly believe that this program is perfectly lawful. The president has the legal authority to authorize these kinds of programs.”
Gonzales cites inconsistencies
On CNN’s “Larry King Live,” Gonzales said Gore’s comments were inconsistent with Clinton administration policy.
“It’s my understanding that during the Clinton administration there was activity regarding physical searches without warrants,” Gonzales said. “I can also say it’s my understanding that the deputy attorney general testified before Congress that the president does have the inherent authority under the Constitution to engage in physical searches without a warrant. And so, those would certainly seem to be inconsistent with what the former vice president was saying today.”
“The Administration’s response to my speech illustrates perfectly the need for a special counsel to review the legality of the NSA wiretapping program,” Gore said in a statement on Tuesday. “The Attorney General is making a political defense of the president without even addressing the substantive legal questions that have so troubled millions of Americans.”
Gore added, “It is clearly wrong and disrespectful to the American people to allow a close political associate of the president to be in charge of reviewing serious charges against him.”
‘Breaking the law’
Gore said there is still much to learn about the domestic surveillance program, but that he already has drawn a conclusion about its legality.
“What we do know about this pervasive wiretapping virtually compels the conclusion that the president of the United States has been breaking the law repeatedly and insistently,” he said.
Bush has pointed to a congressional resolution passed after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, that authorized him to use force in the fight against terrorism as allowing him to order the program.
Gore, however, contended that Bush failed to convince Congress to support a domestic spying program, so he “secretly assumed that power anyway, as if congressional authorization was a useless bother.”
He said the spying program must be considered along with other administration actions as a constitutional power grab by the president. Gore cited imprisoning American citizens without charges in terrorism cases, mistreatment of prisoners — including torture — and seizure of individuals in foreign countries and delivering them to autocratic regimes “infamous for the cruelty of their techniques.”