Sunday, January 08, 2006

Specter Seeks AG's Testimony on Spying

This is interesting. From Yahoo News:

WASHINGTON - The chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee said Sunday he has asked Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to testify publicly on the legality of warantless eavesdropping on telephone conversations between suspected terrorists and people in the United States.

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. AP File Photo

A prominent conservative on the committee said he is troubled by the legal arguments the Bush administration has presented for establishing the National Security Agency program.

President Bush has pointed to the congressional resolution that authorized him to use force against Iraq as allowing him to order the program.

But GOP Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas said, "There was no discussion in anything that I was around that gave the president a broad surveillance authority with that resolution."

The committee chairman, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said senators will examine that issue and other legal questions in hearings scheduled for early February. Gonzales' testimony is being sought because he is the principal spokesman for the administration's position, Specter said.

Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa.

The attorney general was White House counsel when Bush initiated the program, a role that could raise issues of attorney-client privilege in seeking his testimony. A message left with the Justice Department on Sunday was not immediately returned.

Asked on CBS's "Face the Nation" if Gonzales had agreed to appear, Specter said, "Well, I didn't ask him if he had agreed. I told him we were holding the hearings and he didn't object. I don't think he has a whole lot of choice on testifying."

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., called for former Attorney General John Ashcroft and former Deputy Attorney General Jim Comey to testify at the hearings. "It would render these hearings useless and prevent the American people from getting to the bottom of this if the administration invoked executive privilege," Schumer, a committee member, said in a statement.

I'm not sure what Gonzales' response will be. If Gonzales agrees to testify, he defers to Congress the right of congressional oversight into the White House's conduct in fighting the war on terrorism. In one sense, this contradicts President Bush's arguments that Congress gave him the right to fight terrorism in any way--including the secret NSA wiretaps. If Gonzales refuses, he's going to take some serious heat from both Democrats and Republicans. The Bush White House will pretty much ignore anything the Democrats say on the issue--labeling the Democrats as "partisan," "obstructionist," or "helping the terrorists." But moderate and centrist Republicans are concerned that if this NSA spying issue remains front page news over the course of this year, it will become an election issue that can damage the Republicans in Congress since they refuse to conduct any oversight into scandals or problems within their own party ranks. And there is enough damaging scandals to make the Republicans nervous--specifically Tom DeLay, Jack Abramoff, and the Valerie Plame / Scooter Libby trial. Furthermore, Gonzales knows that if he faces either the Senate Judiciary Committee, or the Intelligence Committee, he's going to have to tackle some hard questions from the Democrats, and possibly from Republicans, regarding the NSA spying issue. Gonzales knows that any attempts to deflect, sidestep, or even outright lying to these questions--possibly under oath--will cause more political damage to the White House, and provide more ammunition to the Democrats for this election year.

One strategy that the Bush White House could take is to ignore Specter's call for Gonzales' testimony on the NSA wiretaps, while at the same time, continuing to spin the story that Bush received the authority from Congress in the resolution that authorized force in Iraq to fight the terrorists. This could place Specter in a bind. If Specter is serious about investigating the White House's involvement in authorizing the NSA wiretaps, then he is going to have to subpoena Gonzales to testify before Judiciary Committee--setting up a fight between two Republican-controlled branches of the federal government. I'm not sure if Specter, or the Republicans in Congress, are willing to go that far.

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