Gonzales Issue Snarls Surveillance Law
LARA JAKES JORDAN | August 2, 2007
WASHINGTON — Congress struggled Thursday over giving the government more power to eavesdrop on suspected terrorists, bogged down by concerns about the man who would oversee the plan _ Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.
Democrats and Republicans alike said they wanted to update the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 before leaving Washington at week's end for a monthlong break. Summer generally is considered a vulnerable time for attacks because more people are traveling and terrorists can move around undetected more easily.
Gonzales "is clearly one of the concerns that has been expressed by the Democratic leaders," House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio told reporters.
"But at the end of the day, there has to be a way for our intelligence and counterintelligence agencies to collect data from known terrorists," Boehner said. "And we shouldn't let personalities get in the way of protecting the American people."
Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said lawmakers scoff when "they say Gonzales should do the reviews because nobody believes he has any independence."
"You just can't rely on Gonzales, and the president and the Republicans know it," said Schumer, one of the attorney general's chief critics.
The administration accused Congress of playing politics with national security.
"Putting political interests above the passage of important legislation to protect the American people is truly unfortunate," said Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse. White House spokesman Tony Fratto said, "We should not be sacrificing national security over partisan differences."
The law generally requires court review of government surveillance of suspected terrorists in the United States. It does not specifically address the government's ability to intercept messages believed to come from suspects who are overseas, opening what the White House considers a significant gap in protecting against attacks by foreigners targeting the U.S.
Democrats, who control Congress, would allow the messages from foreign targets to be intercepted, but only after a review by the special FISA court to make sure the surveillance does not focus on communications that might be sent to and from Americans.
They reject the Bush administration's proposal to give Gonzales speedy authority to decide if the surveillance properly targets people overseas _ and not in the United States.
In a counteroffer, the White House proposed that Gonzales share that power with the national intelligence director, Mike McConnell. That proposal, however, did not appease Democrats. They want court review of highly classified surveillance that has been at the heart of civil liberties disputes with the White House for years.
But Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said having the two men share legal oversight of the spying would, at least, eliminate "the concerns I have about giving any additional authority to the attorney general."
In instances where the two disagree on issues, "I think that Gonzales' vote will be of lesser weight than McConnell's," Specter said. Asked why he believed that, he answered, "Because I know the two men."
In a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., senators said any final plan should ensure the special court has oversight.
"We are reluctant to amend FISA without assurances that the administration will actually follow the law," wrote Democratic Sens. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin and Robert Byrd of West Virginia and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.
Negotiations "are going back and forth, back and forth," Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said. "We will not leave here, we must not leave here, until we get this fixed."