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Senators Question Top Bush Official About Domestic Surveillance Program


U.S. senators Thursday expressed frustration with Attorney General Alberto Gonzales for not being more forthcoming about details relating to the Bush administration's decision to place its controversial wiretapping program under court review. The attorney general faced tough questioning when he appeared before a Senate panel Thursday, as VOA's Deborah Tate reports from Capitol Hill.

The surveillance program was established after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, and allowed the National Security Agency to monitor, without court warrants, phone calls and e-mails between suspected terrorists overseas and people in the United States. The Bush administration defended the program, but many in Congress questioned its legality.

The administration Wednesday reversed itself and notified Congress that the wiretapping program would now be subject to review by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

Attorney General Gonzales faced repeated questions about how the court review would work in his appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

For example, Senator Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, wanted to know if the court review was mandatory or voluntary, and whether it would be directed at individuals or groups of people.

The attorney general refused to answer such questions, saying publicizing such information would undermine the program.

"There is going to be information about operational details about how we are doing this that we want to keep confidential," he said.

Senator Schumer said he was not asking for operational details, but an idea about how broadly the program would be conducted.

"If there were a new spirit of cooperation and understanding of the checks and balances and balances of power sir, you would be more forthcoming to try to show the American people that this is a real change?" he asked.

The top Republican on the committee, Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, asked why it took so long for the administration to put the surveillance program under the review of the special court. He suggested the controversy over the program may have been a factor in Republicans' losing control of Congress in last November's election.

"I believe the United States and the administration paid a heavy price for not acting sooner to bring the terrorist surveillance program under judicial review," said Mr. Specter. "That is the traditional way, before there is a wiretap or search and seizure to have probable cause established and to have court approval. We lost a close election. I would not want to get involved in what was cause and effect, but the heavy criticism which the president took on the program I think was very harmful in the political process and for the reputation of the country."

Across Capitol Hill, National Intelligence Director John Negroponte told the House Intelligence Committee that it was always the administration's intention to put the program under court review, even before its existence was revealed in a New York Times article more than a year ago.

"The discussion of whether to bring this matter and try to work something out with the FISA court is something that predated the public revelations of the program in December of 2005," he said.

The House and Senate Intelligence Committees have been briefed about the new court review.

Attorney General Gonzales offered to provide a similar briefing to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy.

Senator Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, raised another issue with the attorney general: the case of Maher Arar.

Arar is a Canadian citizen, who was detained in New York as he was returning home from vacation in 2002, on suspicion of ties to terrorism. He was deported to Syria, where he was held for 10 months and reportedly tortured.

Arar was returned to Canada, where the government there determined he had no ties to terrorism.

The matter elicited this exchange between Attorney General Gonzales and a furious Senator Leahy.

GONZALES: "There were assurances sought that he would not be tortured from Syria."

LEAHY: "Attorney General, I am sorry, I do not mean to treat this lightly. We knew damn well if he went to Canada he would not be tortured. If he were held, he would be investigated. We also knew damn well that if he went to Syria he would be tortured, and it is beneath the dignity of this country, a country that has always been a beacon of human rights, to send somebody to another country to be tortured. You know and I know that has happened in the past five years by this country. It is a black mark on us. It has brought about the condemnation of some of our closest and best allies."

Senator Leahy said the United States continues to have Arar on a watch list of suspected terrorists, and demanded to know why.

Gonzales said he could not comment now, but that he would be able to provide more information about the case as early as next week.

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