Attorney General Alberto Gonzales faced tough questions Tuesday from members of the Senate about some of the Bush administration's counter-terrorism programs.
Under questioning from members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Attorney General Gonzales said that President Bush had personally blocked Justice Department lawyers from conducting an internal probe of the administration's domestic surveillance program.
The program is run by the National Security Agency and monitors international phone calls with suspected terrorists. Previously, such monitoring required a warrant from a special intelligence court. But following the 2001 terrorist attacks, the president secretly authorized the monitoring without the need to first obtain a warrant.
Disclosure of the secret program in December set off a debate over civil liberties during a time of war.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, a Republican from Pennsylvania, pressed Attorney General Gonzales about why lawyers from the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility were blocked from looking into the program.
Specter: "Highly classified, very important, but many other lawyers in the department [of Justice] had clearance [to know about it]. Why not OPR [Office of Professional Responsibility]?"
Gonzales: "And the President of the United States makes decisions about who is ultimately given access."
Specter: "Did the president make the decision not to clear OPR?"
Gonzales: "As with all decisions that are non-operational in terms of who has access to the program, the President of the United States makes the decision."
Last week, Senator Specter struck a deal with the White House that would permit a limited court review of the surveillance program.
Attorney General Gonzales also faced questions about the recent Supreme Court decision that struck down the administration's plans to use military tribunals to try suspected terrorists being held at the U.S. Naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
"We are going to abide by the law and conform our conduct to ensure it is consistent with the law," he said "That is the thing that is important. We are talking about respect for the rule of law and that is that you comply with the decisions of our courts."
Gonzales also urged lawmakers to work with the administration on devising procedures for the tribunals that would meet the requirements of the Supreme Court.
Opposition Democrats like Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont remain skeptical.
"I agree with President Reagan who said, 'Trust but verify,'" he said. "This administration asks an enormous amount of trust from us. They do not give much in the way of verification."
Gonzales said it is important for the military tribunals or commissions to go ahead in order to eliminate hundreds of lawsuits filed on behalf of Guantanamo detainees that are clogging the civil court system.
The lawsuits were brought by human- and civil-rights lawyers, following a Supreme Court decision in 2004 that allowed the detainees to pursue legal challenges to their detention in U.S. courts.