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Listening to America

Prepared by: Eben Kaplan
February 6, 2006

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"The terrorist surveillance program has helped prevent terrorist attacks. It remains essential to the security of America.... We will not sit back and wait to be hit again." Not everyone agrees with that assertion, put forth in president's State of the Union address. Cfr.org's Lionel Beehner highlights the arguments over the program in a Background Q&A.

On Monday, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales attempted to address this issue, responding in an open hearing to a list of questions submitted by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-PA). At issue is the question of whether the president's executive power grants him the authority to bypass the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), the legislation outlining the legal procedures for domestic wiretaps. While Bush claims the FISA process is too cumbersome to allow U.S. intelligence agencies to effectively monitor terrorist activities, his critics are concerned the program is too secretive and violates civil liberties. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, Gonzales defends the program as "necessary and appropriate." However, Patrick Leahy (D-VT) told Gonzales in Monday's hearing, "nobody is above the law, not even the president of the United States" (FT). Cfr.org's Lionel Beehner discusses the legality of the surveillance program with a group of legal experts in this interview.

The debate is raging outside Congressional chambers as well. CFR Fellow Max Boot argues wiretaps are a necessary infringement on Americans' liberties and pale in comparison to the actions of other wartime presidents. The National Review contends it is the president's duty to do everything in his power to intercept al-Qaeda communications inside the United States. From across the political divide, the Center for American Progress acknowledges the importance of wiretapping, but says that by ignoring FISA, the president has "broken the law and needlessly violated the public's trust."

Some members of Congress may wish to update FISA, allowing greater flexibility in tracking terrorists while defending civil liberties, but TIME suggests that's easier said than done. The United States is not the only country to wrestle with this issue; Foreign Policy explains France has a long-running, controversial counterterrorist spying program.

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