WASHINGTON - Senators still suspicious of the government's domestic spying program grilled Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales yesterday over whether new oversight by a secret court would help protect people's privacy rights.
Gonzales offered few answers, maintaining during 31/2 hours of sharp rebukes that disclosing details of the program would expose sensitive security information.
His resistance was underscored by a letter from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court's presiding judge, offering to detail some of its new authority with lawmakers if allowed to by the Bush administration.
"Are you saying that you might object to the court giving us a decision that you publicly announced?" Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D., Vt.) asked. "Are we a little Alice in Wonderland here?"
Gonzales responded: "There is going to be information about operational details about how we're doing this that we want to keep confidential."
His appearance in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee came a day after the administration announced it would allow judicial review of the spying program that President Bush secretly authorized after the Sept. 11 attacks. Until last week, the National Security Agency conducted domestic surveillance of people suspected of links to al-Qaeda without court warrants.
Bush yesterday denied there had been any change in the program, other than to receive a court's blessing of it.
"The courts yesterday said I did have the authority," the president said in an interview with Tribune Broadcasting. "That's important. And the reason it's important that they verify the legalities of the program is it means it's going to extend, make it extend beyond my presidency. This is a really important tool for future presidents to have."
In hearings on both sides of Capitol Hill, lawmakers said they welcomed the reversal by the Bush administration, which had previously opposed review by the so-called FISA Court. But they wanted to know more about how judges might consider evidence when approving government requests to monitor phone calls and e-mail between the United States and abroad.
"I'd like to know if there's an intention to do this on an individual basis, or at least on a case-by-case basis where 5, 6, 10, 20, 100 individuals are involved, or is it broader-brush than that?" said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D., N.Y.). "Because if it's a very broad-brush approval - and again, because it's secret we have no way of knowing - it doesn't do much good."
"They meet the legal requirements under FISA," Gonzales said.
"I think we have to assume these are broad program warrants, barring some comment from you," Schumer responded. He added: "If it's a broad program warrant, it really isn't very satisfying in terms of protection that the Constitution requires."
Gonzales later added that the warrants went "above and beyond what we normally find in a FISA order to ensure that any information that shouldn't be collected is destroyed in an appropriate way."
Sen. Arlen Specter (R., Pa.) said it remained unclear whether the FISA court has a blanket authority to approve all eavesdropping requests - even though Justice Department attorneys have assured him warrants would target individuals. "From their description to me, I think we need to know more on the oversight process," he said.
Specter also needled Gonzales on why the spying program was only last week put under judicial review after it was revealed a little over a year ago. He noted that Republicans lost control of Congress in elections last fall that were widely seen as a repudiation of administration policy.