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Bush Decided Against Domestic Spying, Gonzalez Tells Congress

By Eric Lichtblau 
and James Risen


President Bush decided against allowing the National Security Agency to intercept purely domestic phone calls and e-mail messages after the Sept. 11 attacks in part because officials realized such a decision would provoke intense opposition if made public, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales testified Monday.

Bush was intent on striking “the right balance” between national security and privacy interests, Gonzales said at the start of congressional hearings into the NSA program.

In light of the intense criticism the program has already encountered, Gonzales said, “the reaction would have been twice as great” if Bush had expanded it to eavesdrop on communications wholly inside the country.

Under the surveillance program, the NSA has been conducting warrantless eavesdropping on the telephone calls and e-mail messages between people inside the United States and people overseas.

Gonzales’ comments offered a new window into the political and legal calculus at the White House involving the decision to authorize the surveillance without court approval. His testimony came against a backdrop of intense partisan wrangling, with Democrats calling the program illegal and accusing the administration of misleading them about it in an effort to keep it secret. Some Republicans on the panel also expressed skepticism about the program’s legal underpinnings, but most defended the president’s authority to order the NSA program to aggressively pursue terrorists and prevent another attack.

Gonzales sidestepped numerous questions about how the program operated. He would not say, for instance, how many American citizens have been the targets of the eavesdropping operation, or exactly when the program started. His refusal to discuss details exasperated Democrats, who were also frustrated that he refused to answer other queries that he termed “hypothetical” about any limits to the president’s powers.