WASHINGTON – Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has agreed to testify during open hearings on the legality of the Bush administration's domestic spying program.
Hearings are planned for early February into the National Security Agency program that President Bush approved after Sept. 11, 2001, said Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. They will examine whether the congressional resolution authorizing the president to use force against Iraq allowed eavesdropping without a court order, as the administration contends, he said.
Gonzales' testimony is being sought because he is the principle spokesman for the administration's position, Specter said.
The attorney general was White House counsel when Bush initiated the program, a role that could raise issues of attorney-client privilege in seeking his testimony. A message left with the Justice Department on Sunday was not immediately returned.
Asked on CBS's "Face the Nation" if Gonzales had agreed to appear, Specter said, "Well, I didn't ask him if he had agreed. I told him we were holding the hearings and he didn't object. I don't think he has a whole lot of choice on testifying."
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., a member of the committee, said he was pleased Gonzales would attend the hearing, but also wants to hear from others.
"It is good that the attorney general is testifying, but it is fundamental that those who were there when this policy was formulated are also called to testify including former Attorney General John Ashcroft and former Deputy A.G. Jim Comey. Furthermore, it would render these hearings useless and prevent the American people from getting to the bottom of this if the administration invoked executive privilege,” Schumer said in a statement.
Academics and others will be asked to appear, part of a list of witnesses "who think the president was right and people who think the president was wrong," Specter said.
Slightly more than half of Americans, 56 percent, want the administration to obtain court approval before tapping into conversations inside the United States even if suspected terrorists are involved, according to an AP-Ipsos poll conducted last week. About four out of 10 agreed with the White House that court approval isn't necessary.
Appearing with Specter, the top committee Democrat said the hearings would provide the type of oversight that has been lacking.
"No matter who is in power, there should be real oversight," said Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy.
Another committee member, GOP Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, said Sunday he was troubled by the legal basis the administration has cited for the program.
Bush contends his constitutional powers as president and commander in chief as well as prewar resolution approved by Congress allow him to order domestic spying without a warrant.
Brownback, who voted in favor of the prewar resolution, said on ABC's "This Week" that there was "no discussion in anything that I was around that gave the president a broad surveillance authority with that resolution."
On the same point, Leahy said: "We made it very clear what the president could do ... also made it very clear what the president could not do. And he cannot do illegal spying on Americans."
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., another Judiciary Committee member, said he agreed with those who believe wartime "is not a blank check to a president to override the rights and liberties that are in the Constitution of the United States."
Kennedy added, "I don't believe that this president understands that."
After a story reporting the existence of the program appeared in The New York Times in December, Bush acknowledged that he had authorized the NSA to eavesdrop on conversations involving suspected terrorists in the months after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
The NSA program bypassed the special court that Congress established in 1978 to approve or reject secret surveillance or searches of foreigners and U.S. citizens suspected of terrorism or espionage.
The administration informed top members of Congress of the NSA program and, according to the president, administration officials regularly review its authorization.
Still, many members of Congress -- Republicans as well as Democrats -- have questioned whether the NSA program is outside the law.