Justice: Domestic surveillance legal
By BOB DEANS Cox News Service | January 20,2006
WASHINGTON ó Preparing for a possible showdown over domestic surveillance without a warrant, the Bush administration Thursday called on the Justice Department and Vice President Dick Cheney to mount their most spirited defense yet of the practice.
Eavesdropping without a warrant on calls between people in this country and suspected terrorists overseas is a legal and "indispensable" part of safeguarding the nation against future attacks, the Department of Justice asserted, claiming the practice does not violate Constitutionally protected civil liberties.
President Bush has broken no laws in ordering the National Security Agency to conduct selected wiretaps without warrants, the DOJ argued.
On the contrary, Bush has acted fully within his authority as the commander-in-chief of a nation at war and the "sole organ" for the conduct of U.S. foreign policy, the Justice Department stated in a 42-page white paper on the issue.
Speaking before a conservative audience in New York, Cheney accused unspecified critics of going soft in the anti-terrorism campaign, saying that four years after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, some were ready to "back away from the business at hand."
He said the surveillance is being conduced in a way that balances Constitutional rights with the president's responsibility to protect the country from future attack.
"This is a wartime measure, limited in scope to surveillance associated with terrorists, and conducted in a way that safeguards the civil liberties of our people," said Cheney. "Either we are serious about fighting this war on terror or we are not."
Cheney's comments and the DOJ memo sharpened the administration's stances in a brewing Constitutional battle over the NSA wiretaps.
On Tuesday, two civil liberties groups filed separate lawsuits in federal court challenging the practice. And today, House Judiciary Committee Democrats are holding a mock hearing on the issue after weeks of pressing their Republican counterparts to schedule a formal inquiry.
While House Republicans have so far blocked such a review, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., has said he will hold a hearing on the NSA wiretaps. White House spokesman Scott McClellan said that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is preparing to testify before Specter's committee. No date for the hearing has been set.
The federal lawsuits, filed in Detroit by the American Civil Liberties Union and in New York by the Center for Constitutional Rights, allege that the NSA eavesdropping violates U.S. law prohibiting wiretaps of U.S. citizens without a warrant. The suits further assert that Bush went beyond his Constitutional authority in ordering the surveillance and that the practice violates First Amendment protections of freedom of speech and Fourth Amendment prohibitions against unreasonable search and seizure.
"The president must not use a claim of preserving the nation as justification to undermine the very principles that define our nation," ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero said in a written response to the DOJ memo.
Steven Bradbury, acting assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's office of legal counsel, denied the lawsuits' charges on Thursday, saying the NSA eavesdropping program has been "narrowly tailored" for use only in monitoring conversations suspected of being linked to the al-Qaida terrorist group or its affiliates.
"It's not a blank check," Bradbury told reporters.
"It is not domestic surveillance. It is not broad surveillance of U.S. citizens. It's not surveillance of domestic groups," said Bradbury. "The program was designed to be protective of civil liberties, and to be consistent with the Fourth Amendment, and it undergoes periodic review for that purpose."