The top U.S. law enforcement official is defending the legality of a controversial domestic surveillance program, saying it is an essential tool in the war on terrorism.
Testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales dismissed concerns of congressional Democrats and some Republicans that the secret wiretapping program established after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks is illegal.
"The terrorist surveillance program is necessary, it is lawful, and it respects the civil liberties we all cherish," he said.
At issue is President Bush's decision to order, without warrants, eavesdropping on international phone calls and e-mails between people in the United States and suspected terrorists overseas. The program bypasses a special federal court whose approval is required under law for domestic wiretapping operations.
The top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, has been a vocal critic of the program:
"Instead of doing what the president has the authority to do legally, he has decided to do it illegally, without safeguards," said Senator Leahy.
But Gonzales argued the president has the constitutional authority to order such wiretaps without warrants to protect national security, and he said Congress gave him authority to do so when it passed a resolution authorizing the use of force to respond to those responsible for the 2001 terrorist attacks.
A number of lawmakers, including the Republican chairman of the committee, Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, expressed skepticism about Gonzales' argument that the president has the authority to order the wiretaps to protect national security.
"You think you are right, but there are a lot of people who think you are wrong," he said.
Specter suggested the program's legality be subjected to court review, and Gonzales said he would not object to the proposal.
Former White House counsel Gonzales played a key role in crafting the legal justification for the program before he became attorney general. He declined to discuss the operational details of the program, saying that would put Americans' lives at risk.
Among those watching the proceedings in the hearing room were family members of those who died in the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon.