The Webster Retort
By Stephen Webster
Publication date: Feb. 10, 2006
Gonzales versus Common Sense, Round One
On Monday, Feb. 6, 2006, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales sat before the Senate and answered questions about the Bush Domestic Spying program. Judging from the transcripts that have surfaced, it was a riveting exchange with plenty of finger shaking and carefully worded statements.
Since the story about Bush’s warrantless spying and wiretapping broke in December of 2005, there has been a lot of talk on the Right about using it as a blunt weapon against Democrats. The line is that Democrats care about partisan politics more than national security, making them unpatriotic, friends of Osama, Freedom Haters, and all-around bad dudes. There has been so much table-pounding on part of the Right, many think Congress will just sit down and drown its loss of oversight powers in a bottle of Wild Turkey. But if the first grilling of Alberto Gonzales is any indicator, Congress just may be on the road to Sober Justice.
The first volleys fired against the Administration were from none other than Pennsylvania Republican Arlen Specter on Sunday’s Meet the Press. He told Journalist Tim Russert that the argument being presented by Bush is “very strained and unrealistic.” He went on to say, “The authorization for the use of force doesn’t say anything about electronic surveillance. The issue was never raised with the Congress. And there is a specific statute on the books, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which says flatly that you can’t undertake that kind of surveillance without a court order.” On Monday, when bringing the Senate hearing to order, Specter refused to allow Gonzales to be placed under oath, and denied other Senators the opportunity to show video clips of Gonzales’ past statements.
Nevertheless, Specter’s words served as a clear reminder to other Republicans that the issue of Domestic Spying is not partisan in nature. What is at stake is the support structure of our system of laws and the very fidelity of our constitution, he and others contended. At one point, Specter even reprimanded Gonzales for giving a non-answer, as many politicians do so frequently. “I don’t think you can use principle of avoiding a tough constitutional conflict by disagreeing with the plain words of the statute,” said Specter. “Attorney General Gonzales, when members of Congress heard about your contention that the resolution authorizing the use of force amended the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act there was general shock.”
Gonzales responded with a muddled bit of tripe. “We’ve never asserted that FISA has been amended. We’ve always asserted that our interpretation of FISA, which contemplates another statute and we have that here in the authorization to use force, those complement each other. This is not a situation where FISA has been overwritten or FISA has been amended. That’s never been our position.”
Specter promptly brushed him off, saying, “That just defies logic and plain English.”
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina joined the fray, adding, “All I’m saying is the inherent authority argument in its application to me seems to have no boundaries when it comes to executive decisions in a time of war, it deals the Congress and courts out, Mr. Attorney General.”
Another major gaffe on Gonzales’ behalf came when he could not answer a question about propaganda. Democrat Diane Feinstein asked if Bush has the authority to suspend Section 503 of the National Security Act, which prohibits actions that would “influence United States political processes, public opinion, policies or media.” The Administration’s top legal mind responds that the question is too hard and he would not want to respond “off the cuff”. I have yet to figure out when the last time anything said before the United States Senate was “off the cuff”? But I digress.
The last, most important pillar of the Administration’s argument to fall was the contention that other presidents have used similar authority in times of war, and Bush’s Domestic Spying Programs are within his “constitutional authority.” He even brought this point up during the recent State of the Union address, saying, “Previous Presidents have used the same constitutional authority I have, and federal courts have approved the use of that authority.”
Democrat Russ Feingold of Wisconsin hammered out a carefully worded line of questioning that turned the popular fabrication into a pile of rubble. Asked Feingold: “[D]o you know of any other President who has authorized warrantless wiretaps outside of FISA, since 1978, when FISA was passed?”
Gonzales, having argued the line that Bush could do it because Lincoln and FDR did similar things, lacked material to jaw about. “Um, none come to mind, Senator,” he said. “But maybe — I would be happy to look to see whether or not that’s the case.”
“I can take it as a no unless you submit something?” asked Feingold. “I can’t give you an answer,” responded Gonzales. After Gonzales refused to assure Democrat Joe Biden that no American “other than someone who has a communication that is emanating from foreign soil by a suspected terrorist” is being spied on, the mood of the Senator’s questions turned very skeptical. Once it was said and done, Gonzales was pulling bits of boiled egg out of his ears.
"It's a ridiculous argument, not only bad, it's ridiculous,” said former president Jimmy Carter. “Obviously, the attorney general who said it's all right to torture prisoners and so forth is going to support the person who put him in office. But he's a very partisan attorney general and there's no doubt that he would say that. I hope that eventually the case will go to the Supreme Court. I have no doubt that when it's over, the Supreme Court will rule that Bush has violated the law."
"Under the Bush administration, there's been a disgraceful and illegal decision — we're not going to the let the judges or the Congress or anyone else know that we're spying on the American people," Carter continued. "And no one knows how many innocent Americans have had their privacy violated under this secret act."
Carter’s rebuke was even more strongly worded than those from the Senate, given that he was president when FISA became law. "If my voice is important to point of the intent of the law that was passed when I was president, I know all about that because it was one of the most important decisions I had to make."
Tuesday morning, a report surfaced in Right Wing magazine Insight, run by conservative paper The Washington Times, which accused Bush’s political strategist Karl Rove of trying to intimidate the party. Rove allegedly threatened Republican Senators and Representatives with a blacklisting if they do not support the Domestic Spying Program. Those who go against Rove will receive zero campaign funds from the RNC and will have their access to the president and the White House cut off completely.
And thus, efforts to strengthen ethics in Washington were successful and the Republican Party lived happily ever after.
All of this over a silly law the president said was written too long ago for the president to be forced to follow. Take it from Bush: "If this were a dictatorship, it would be a heck of a lot easier - just so long I'm the dictator." And he’s right, too.
Stephen Webster is an Investigative Reporter and Syndicated Columnist with The News Connection, a Staff Columnist with George W. Bush’s hometown weekly The Lone Star Iconoclast, and a former Contributor to The Dallas Morning News’ Science & Technology section. For more of Webster’s musings, visit GonzoMuckraker.BlogSpot.com.