In his daylong marathon of evasive remarks to the Senate Judiciary Committee today, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales rebuffed Congressional efforts to get more information on the Bush Administration's wiretapping program, as well as its view of the limits of Presidential powers.
Senator after senator put the questions to Gonzales: How do we know what the Administration is up to? Whom its it targeting with its wiretapping? Is it focusing on legitimate national security concerns, or conducting a fishing expedition? And what is it doing with information it turns up?
Hurray for Senator Russ Feingold (D WI), who called out the Attorney General, saying "you've taken mincing words to a new high." Feingold's exchange with Gonzales highlighted the Attorney General's dishonesty. In his confirmation hearings, Feingold pointed out, the Senator asked then-nominee Gonzales specifically whether he believed the President had the authority to authorize wiretapping in violation of FISA. Gonzales said at the time that this was a "hypothetical" question. But, as Gonzales admitted during the hearings, he had already signed off on the then-secret NSA wiretapping program. He defended himself by saying that the Administration believes the wiretapping is not a violation of FISA but is "consistent with" FISA--even though FISA says that the "exclusive means" for domestic wiretapping is going to the FISA court for a warrant, which the Administration refuses to do. That's mincing words for you.
Republican Lindsey Graham (R-SC) was kinder to Gonzales. But even he had to state that the Administration doesn't have a leg to stand on when it claims Congress authorized wiretapping with its resolution to authorize the use of force after 9/11. Graham said he'd never had warrantless wiretaps in mind when he voted for the authorization that sent troops to Afghanistan.
Again and again, Gonzales dodged the issues. "I won't get into specifics" about what the results of the program are, he told Senator Joe Biden, who wanted to know whether anyone had been arrested as a result of the wiretaps, and what becomes of taped conversations among innocent American citizens.
Biden also asked about the 45-day review process, under which the President reauthorizes the program regularly. Biden asked what benchmarks go into the reauthorization. Gonzales responded that the Administration listens to intelligence on whether Al Qaeda continues to pose a threat to the United States. "That's it?" Biden replied. "It's whether Al Qaeda is still a threat . . . not whether the the program is still effective?"
"Of course we only use a tool if it's effective," Gonzales responded with trademark smugness. The overall impression he gave during the hearings was of a man waving away gnats. Please don't bother the Bush Administration with your whiny little questions about checks and balances and civil liberties. Whatever decisions the Administration is making, we can all rest assured that they are sane, sensible, and good for the country.
But why would Americans buy this "just trust us" position, after what we've witnessed in the phony-intelligence lead-up to the war in Iraq?
Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) made just this point, when he said, almost pleadingly, "I voted for the Patriot Act! . . . We're not asking you for operational details. Just come and work this out with us." Congress has no idea what the Administration is up to with its spying program, he pointed out. Even the 45-day review is conducted completely within the executive branch, a "significant departure from our system of checks and balances,” Durbin noted. "No one is looking over your shoulder," he said.
Gonzales responded that some members of Congress had indeed been briefed on the program. "And they were sworn to secrecy!" Durbin replied. Gonzales dismissed that caveat--even if members of Congress had received strictly classified information, and been instructed not to share it, they could still speak out about any illegalities.
Not so, said Durbin, who pointed out his own recent experience with classified briefings before the Iraq war: "I sat a few feet from here and listened to meager evidence of weapons of mass destruction," he said. Based on those briefings, he said, he voted against the war. Fat lot of good that did.
The situation with NSA spying is even more dire. There is no vote on whether the President should be able to continue the program. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham pointed this out. "I stand behind this President being commander-in-chief, to pursue fifth column movements," he declared, somewhat chillingly. But even for Graham, the Bush team has gone too far. He drew attention to the President's signing statement, basically nullifying a law passed by Congress making torture of detainees illegal. Does Congress have the authority to pass such a law, making physical abuse of prisoners of war illegal, he asked Gonzales. "I'm not prepared to say that," Gonzales replied. "Then really we have no power in a time of war," Graham said.
The "inherent authority" claimed by this President, to order the torture of detainees, conduct a broad, secret wiretapping program without any review by Congress or the courts, and otherwise assume imperial powers so long as the indefinite "war on terror" continues is a complete subversion of our democracy. Senators of both parties made that point in various ways today.
Only a few Senators, including Jeff Sessions, Republican of Alabama, dissented, praising the Administration, worrying aloud that perhaps its surveillance of domestic-to-domestic phone calls is too limited, and demanding that Gonzales assure him that the people who leaked the existence of the NSA wiretapping program be prosecuted. Gonzales assured him that anyone who broke the law (meaning people who leaked classified information) would be prosecuted.
The Bush Administration is so brazen, it just might have the chutzpah to take the whistleblowers to court.