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Gonzales defends NSA, rejects call for prosecutor

'Looking forward' to testifying at congressional hearings

"We need to know what the enemy is thinking," Gonzales says.


White House
National Security Agency (NSA)
Justice Department

(CNN) -- Attorney General Alberto Gonzales once again Monday defended the legality of a controversial surveillance program by the National Security Agency, calling it a "very targeted and limited" operation that has helped thwart terrorist attacks in the United States.

In an interview with CNN's "Larry King Live," Gonzales rejected a call earlier in the day from former Vice President Al Gore for a special prosecutor to investigate the program, under which the NSA has intercepted international communications of people inside the United States without obtaining a warrant.

"This program from its inception has been carefully reviewed by lawyers from throughout the administration, people who are experienced in this area of the law," Gonzales said. "We believe the president does have the legal authorities to authorize this program."

"We need to know who the enemy is. We need to know what the enemy is thinking. We need to know where the enemy is thinking about striking us again."

Gonzales also said he was "looking forward" to testifying at upcoming congressional hearings on the NSA surveillance program.

"I'm anxious to appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee. I'm anxious to talk to the American people about the importance of this program and the legal authorities that support this program," he said.

Shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, President Bush authorized the NSA to intercept communications between people inside the United States, including U.S. citizens, and known terror suspects overseas, without obtaining a warrant. Bush and other administration officials contend his constitutional powers as commander-in-chief, as well as a congressional resolution passed in the wake of 9/11, provide the legal authority for the warrantless surveillance.

But critics of the program have questioned that legal rationale, pointing to a law passed by Congress in the 1970s requiring executive branch agencies to get approval for domestic surveillance requests from a special court set up for that purpose, whose proceedings are secret to protect national security.

In a speech Monday, Gore, who served as vice president during the Clinton administration and who lost to Bush in the 2000 presidential election, called the program a "gross and excessive power grab" and charged that Bush "has been breaking the law repeatedly and persistently." (Full story)

In response, Gonzales said the Clinton administration publicly took the position that a president has the authority to authorize even physical searches without a warrant, if national security was at stake. He said that stance seems "to be inconsistent with what the former vice president was saying today."

Gonzales said also said members of Congress have been been briefed on specific instances in which the warrantless surveillance has "been extremely helpful in protecting America" from terrorist attacks. However, because the program is highly classified, he said he could not make public examples of how terrorist attacks were disrupted by the eavesdropping.

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