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Profile: White House press corps
White House press corps was a participant or observer in the following events:
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and NSA chief Lieutenant General Michael Hayden conduct their own “briefing” on the recently revealed NSA wiretapping program (see December 15, 2005) with the White House press corps. Gonzales and Hayden make the following points:
Gonzales says that he will not discuss the internal workings of the still-classified program, only what he calls its “legal underpinnings.”
He claims that the program, which he calls “the most classified program that exists in the United States government,” is legal because President Bush authorized it, and says that the idea that “the United States is somehow spying on American citizens” is wrong: it is “[v]ery, very important to understand that one party to the communication has to be outside the United States.”
He says that for the NSA to eavesdrop on a US citizen’s telephone or e-mail communications, “we have to have a reasonable basis to conclude that one party to the communication is a member of al-Qaeda, affiliated with al-Qaeda, or a member of an organization affiliated with al-Qaeda, or working in support of al-Qaeda.” The wiretapping program is an essential part of the administration’s war against terror, he says.
He goes on to claim that “the authorization to use force, which was passed by the Congress in the days following September 11th, constitutes” legal grounds for “this kind of signals intelligence.” [White House, 12/19/2005] The White House signed Congress’s Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF) into law on September 18, 2001 (see September 14-18, 2001. [White House, 9/18/2001]
Hayden Claims Supreme Court Backing - While he admits that the Congressional authorization to use force against international terrorism does not specifically mention any kind of electronic surveillance, he refers the listeners to the Supreme Court case concerning alleged US terrorist Yaser Esam Hamdi (see June 28, 2004), in which the Court ruled that Hamdi had the legal right to challenge his detention. “[T]he United States government took the position that Congress had authorized that detention in the authorization to use force, even though the authorization to use force never mentions the word ‘detention.’ And the Supreme Court, a plurality written by Justice O’Connor agreed. She said, it was clear and unmistakable that the Congress had authorized the detention of an American citizen captured on the battlefield as an enemy combatant for the remainder—the duration of the hostilities. So even though the authorization to use force did not mention the word, ‘detention,’ she felt that detention of enemy soldiers captured on the battlefield was a fundamental incident of waging war, and therefore, had been authorized by Congress when they used the words, ‘authorize the President to use all necessary and appropriate force.’ For the same reason, we believe signals intelligence is even more a fundamental incident of war, and we believe has been authorized by the Congress. And even though signals intelligence is not mentioned in the authorization to use force, we believe that the Court would apply the same reasoning to recognize the authorization by Congress to engage in this kind of electronic surveillance.”
Bush 'Very Concerned' With Protecting Civil Liberties - Gonzales insists, Bush “is very concerned about the protection of civil liberties, and that’s why we’ve got strict parameters, strict guidelines in place out at NSA to ensure that the program is operating in a way that is consistent with the President’s directives.” He adds, “[W]e feel comfortable that this surveillance is consistent with requirements of the Fourth Amendment. The touchstone of the Fourth Amendment is reasonableness, and the Supreme Court has long held that there are exceptions to the warrant requirement in—when special needs outside the law enforcement arena. And we think that that standard has been met here.”
Wiretapping Essential in Catching Terrorists - Hayden reiterates how important the wiretapping is to catching terrorists and stopping potential attacks against US targets, though he and Gonzales both refuse to say what, if any, terrorist plots or what terror suspects might have been captured through the NSA wiretapping program. Hayden does say, “This program has been successful in detecting and preventing attacks inside the United States.…I can say unequivocally, all right, that we have got information through this program that would not otherwise have been available,” though he refuses to cite specifics. He admits that there have been some errors in surveilling innocent US citizens, though he refuses to give any details, and says those errors were quickly corrected.
Administration Not Required to Go Through FISA - Gonzales, who is the main speaker in the briefing, reiterates that while the administration continues to seek warrants from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance (FISA) court, “we are not legally required to do, in this particular case, because the law requires that we—FISA requires that we get a court order, unless authorized by a statute, and we believe that authorization has occurred.” He justifies the administration’s refusal to use the FISA court for obtaining warrants by insisting that NSA officials “tell me that we don’t have the speed and the agility that we need, in all circumstances, to deal with this new kind of enemy. You have to remember that FISA was passed by the Congress in 1978. There have been tremendous advances in technology… since then.” Hayden adds, “I don’t think anyone could claim that FISA was envisaged as a tool to cover armed enemy combatants in preparation for attacks inside the United States. And that’s what this authorization under the President is designed to help us do.”
'Balancing' of Civil Liberties, National Security - Hayden says the warrantless wiretapping program is part of “a balancing between security and liberty,” a more “aggressive” operation “than would be traditionally available under FISA. It is also less intrusive. It deals only with international calls. It is generally for far shorter periods of time. And it is not designed to collect reams of intelligence, but to detect and warn and prevent about attacks. And, therefore, that’s where we’ve decided to draw that balance between security and liberty.”
Media Leaks Damaging to National Security - Gonzales refuses to talk about when any members of Congress were briefed on the program or what they were told, but he does imply that there will be some sort of leak investigation as to how the New York Times found out about the program: “[T]his is really hurting national security, this has really hurt our country, and we are concerned that a very valuable tool has been compromised. As to whether or not there will be a leak investigation, we’ll just have to wait and see.”
No Evidence of Compromised National Security - When asked whether he can cite any evidence that the revelation of the program’s existence has actually compromised anything—“Don’t you assume that the other side thinks we’re listening to them? I mean, come on,” one reporter says—Gonzales responds, rather confusingly, “I think the existence of this program, the confirmation of the—I mean, the fact that this program exists, in my judgment, has compromised national security, as the President indicated on Saturday.”
Easier to Sidestep FISA Instead of Seek Congressional Approval - He does admit that the administration decided to sidestep the FISA court entirely instead of attempt to work with Congress to rewrite the FISA statutes because “we were advised that that would be difficult, if not impossible” to amend the law to the White House’s satisfaction. Gonzales says those who are concerned about the program being excessively intrusive or a threat to American civil liberties simply “don’t understand the specifics of the program, they don’t understand the strict safeguards within the program.… Part of the reason for this press brief today is to have you help us educate the American people and the American Congress about what we’re doing and the legal basis for what we’re doing.” He adds that any legal experts who believe the program is illegal are basing their judgments “on very limited information.”
Tough Questioning - One reporter asks an unusually tough series of questions to Gonzales: “Do you think the government has the right to break the law?”, to which Gonzales replies, “Absolutely not. I don’t believe anyone is above the law.” The reporter then says, “You have stretched this resolution for war into giving you carte blanche to do anything you want to do,” to which Gonzales replies cryptically, “Well, one might make that same argument in connection with detention of American citizens, which is far more intrusive than listening into a conversation.” The reporter insists, “You’re never supposed to spy on Americans,” and Gonzales deflects the responsibility for the decision back onto the Supreme Court.
Administration Will Tell Nation What It Needs to Know - Gonzales says the administration has no intention of releasing any of the classified legal opinions underpinning the program, and this press briefing is one of the methods by which the administration will “educat[e] the American people…and the Congress” to give them what they need to know about the program. [White House, 12/19/2005]
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