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.
Sen. Arlen Specter questions Alberto Gonzales during hearing on Justice Department oversight; Sen. Patrick Leahy seated at right, July 18, 2006
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.