Monday, February 06, 2006

Gonzales Can't Give "Absolute Assurance" Innocent Americans Aren't Being Eavesdropped Upon

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales spoke to the Senate Judiciary Committee today about the the merits of warrantless surveillance -- but he failed to assure administration critics.

The day started off poorly, when Senate Republicans voted not to have Gonzales testify under oath. Why? Senate Republicans didn't say.

It's reminiscent of the deal struck by President Bush and Vice President Cheney to not testify under oath before the 9/11 Commission.

Maybe that's the way Republicans work -- they say things, but they don't want to be held accounable. Just note: people only hide when they have to.

Once the hearing began, though, Gonzales proved more capable of spin than substance.

For example, what can Americans make of his comment to Sen. Joseph Biden (D-DE) that he couldn't give "absolute assurance" that the warrantless surveillance program wasn't resulting in innocent Americans being eavesdropped upon.

BIDEN: Can you assure us, General, you are fully, totally informed and confident that you know the absolute detail with which this program is being conducted? Can you assure us you personally can assure us no one is being eavesdropped upon in the United States other than -- other than someone who has a communication that is emanating from foreign soil by a suspected terrorist, al Qaeda, or otherwise?

GONZALES: Sir, I can’t give you absolute assurance.

BIDEN: Who can?

GONZALES: Certainly General (Michael) Hayden knows more about the operational details of this (program).

Hayden has, in fact, been asked the question at least twice. And on both occasions, Hayden failed to answer "no." Hardly reassuring.

Asked by ABC's George Stephanopoulos, Hayden said:

HAYDEN: I can’t get into operational details, but the way we do this is based on the people most knowledgeable of al Qaeda, its communications, its intentions, its tactics, techniques and procedures. And so we really don’t have the time or the resources, the linguists, to linger, to go after things that aren’t going to protect the homeland.

Asked by Fox News' Chris Wallace, Hayden said:

HAYDEN: Chris, this is focused on al Qaeda. The only justification we have to undertake this program is to detect and prevent attacks against the United States. We don’t have the time or the lawful authority to do anything except that.

It might just be a case of politico-speak. Or it might be an ability to give "absolute assurance" that no innocent Americans are being eavesdroped upon.

***

The Washington Post yesterday tried to quantify how many people have been eavesdropped upon as a result of the program. If its math is correct, several thousand innocent Americans have been eavesdropped upon.

After speaking to "knowledgeable sources," the Post reported that about 5,000 Americans in the past four years "have had their conversations recorded or their e-mails read by intelligence analysts without court authority." But, "Computer-controlled systems collect and sift basic information about hundreds of thousands of faxes, e-mails and telephone calls into and out of the United States before selecting the ones for scrutiny by human eyes and ears."

And how many of those 5,000 people, and the hundred of thousands of intercepted communications, have led the administration to take the step of seeking a warrant from a federal judge to intercept domestic calls? Fewer than 10 per year.

If you buy the administration spin that one worthy tip to stop Al Qaeda makes the entire effort worthwhile, then fewer than 10 per year -- or about 40 people overall -- is a bonanza.

But it still doesn't answer the question of why the administration had to circumvent the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which says that the National Security Agency must obtain a warrant before conducting surveillance.

As long-time conservative leader Grover Norquist said in declaring the surveillance program illegal, this shouldn't be a choice between fighting terrorists and upholding civil liberties:

“It’s not either/or," he said. "If the president thinks he needs different tools, pass a law to get them. Don’t break the existing laws."

That, in a nutshell, is what frustrates Bush Administration critics across the political spectrum. We're all in favor of hunting down terrorists, but we don't understand why the Bush Administration needed to break the law to do so.

4 Comments:

Anonymous zanne said...

We should use their own argument against them.

When answering critics of government eavesdropping, many Republican officials have said "If you haven't done anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about". Why didn't Leahy say that to Specter and Gonzalez yesterday?

11:40 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Do you realize why the Attorney General can't answer questions about a program which didn't require judicial oversight?

12:04 PM  
Anonymous calimary said...

YES. Yes, we should. At EVERY opportunity.
Frankly, turning their own words against them should be Standard Operating Procedure for all of us Good Guys. EVERY chance we get.

3:55 PM  
Anonymous rob of wilmington, del. said...

Anonymous, Gonzales ok'd the program. He should be able to defend it, rather than ducking questions.

3:56 PM  

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