Gonzales Under Fire in Senate

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Alberto Gonzales spent two hours every day for the last three weeks steeling himself for today's hearing before the Democrat-led Senate Judiciary committee, says a close aide. Staffers peppered him with possible questions that each Senator might ask. He went in armed for the fight with freshly penned letter to the chairmen of that committee — Democrat Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Republican Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania — telling them not to worry about the whole warrant-less wiretapping issue anymore; it has been approved by judge. It seemed like a nimble pre-emptive duck to take a contentious issue off the table. Some Senators thought it felt more they were being led down a rabbit hole.

In an often-heated exchange, Gonzales refused to disclose details about the court's decision and exactly how it applied to the President's controversial wiretapping program. While disclosing that the court had ruled, Gonzales was unwilling to reveal any of the "operational details about how we're doing this." At one point, an exasperated Leahy asked, "Are we Alice in Wonderland here?"

The big question was whether there will be some genuine judicial oversight that monitors how individual wiretaps are being used, or if the court approval is a one-time pass for the entire program. Frustrated Senators pointed out that it was still unclear what procedures, if any, will actually change with the court order, issued on Jan. 10 by a single judge sitting on the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court.

The judge, Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, wrote in a letter today that she was willing to give Senators copies of the court's opinions on the secret program — provided the Justice Department approved the release of the classified documents, as is the court's standard practice. By the end of the day, many Senators were unsatisfied, feeling they were getting new answers to their old questions, but none of it added up to new information.

The program in question, run by the National Security Agency program and later named the Terrorist Surveillance Program, was designed to listen in on international telephone conversations into or out of the U.S. when one of the callers is believed to be affiliated with a terrorist group. The Justice Department has argued for a year that going through the FISA court for approval of these sensitive, urgent wiretaps was too cumbersome and time consuming.

But after the program was uncovered in press reports in December 2005, pressure mounted on the White House to have judicial oversight. Republican Rep. Pete Hoekstra of Michigan applauded the change today, saying it was a result of "tough questioning" by the House Intelligence Committee over the past year.

But Heather Wilson, a New Mexico Republican who serves on the House Intelligence committee and has been briefed on the program, told the New York Times that she believed the FISA approval was "programmatic" in scope, rather than involving the ongoing review of individual warrants. If that's the case, it doesn't change very much for the Administration — other than eliminating the need for the President to reauthorize the program every 45 days, as he's done since it was initiated in October 2001. The White House has gotten a judge to do that — indefinitely.