February 6, 2006 3:12 PM PST
Gonzales: NSA may tap 'ordinary' Americans' e-mail
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Support for the program appeared to split down party lines. Several Republicans said they generally supported the administration's efforts and understood the importance of the eavesdropping operations. "I suspect few members of Congress would vote to eliminate this program or cut its funding," said Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah.
The committee's top Democrat, Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, said bluntly that the secret surveillance program is not authorized by a 1978 law called the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which he called the "exclusive source of authority for wiretapping for intelligence purposes." "Wiretapping that is not authorized under that statute is a federal crime," he said. "That is what the law says, and that is what the law means."
Leahy chided the attorney general for the administration's lack of consultation with Congress on the legality of the program. "Thank heavens we actually have a press that tells us what you all are doing, because you all are certainly not," he said without disguising any hint of disapproval.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, said she, too, was concerned that too few members of Congress had been adequately briefed about the program, a phenomenon that gave her reason to believe "this program is much bigger and much broader than you want anyone else to know," she said.
Sen. Edward Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, argued that by circumventing FISA, the Bush administration could be jeopardizing national security in the long run. If the wiretapping program is illegal, he said, front-line NSA employees could be prosecuted, and evidence gathered through the process could be tossed, meaning that "some of those toughest, cruelest and meanest members of al-Qaida may be able to use illegality in the court system to escape justice."
But even some Republicans who said they supported the program also admitted they believed it would be more effective and better accepted by the public if Congress explored new legislation to give it a formal legal blessing. "Presidents are always stronger in the condition of foreign affairs when Congress is onboard," said Sen. Mike DeWine, an Ohio Republican. He broached the idea of amending FISA so that it would exclude the sort of communications the administration said it has been tapping through the NSA program.
The administration will "listen and consider your ideas," Gonzales said.
Specter said he expected to schedule a second day of hearings to allow senators to ask the attorney general additional questions about the situation. Other members of the committee indicated they hoped to bring in additional witnesses, such as former Attorney General John Ashcroft, for questioning.
The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence is planning a hearing of its own later this week with the attorney general and NSA Director Michael Hayden, DeWine said, but that session will be closed to the public.
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