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Gonzales Asserts That Bush May Have Legal Authority for Wiretaps

By Eric Lichtblau
THE NEW YORK TIMES


WASHINGTON

Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales suggested for the first time on Thursday that the president might have the legal authority to order wiretapping without a warrant on communications between Americans that occur exclusively within the United States.

“I’m not going to rule it out,” Gonzales said when asked about that possibility at a House Judiciary Committee hearing.

The attorney general made his comments, which critics said reflected a broadened view of the president’s authority, as President Bush offered another strong defense of his decision to authorize the National Security Agency to eavesdrop without warrants on international calls and e-mail messages to or from the United States.

Bush, in an appearance in North Carolina, told a questioner who attacked the program that he would “absolutely not” apologize for authorizing it.

“You can come to whatever conclusion you want” about the merits of the program,“ Bush said. ”The conclusion is I’m not going to apologize for what I did on the terrorist surveillance program.“

At the House hearing, Gonzales faced tough questioning from Democrats and Republicans but declined to discuss many operational details.

Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., the Wisconsin Republican who is chairman of the Judiciary Committee and one of the administration’s staunchest allies, accused the administration of “stonewalling.”

“Mr. Attorney General, how can we discharge our oversight responsibilities if every time we ask a pointed question, we’re told that the answer is classified?” Sensenbrenner asked. “Congress has an inherent constitutional responsibility to do oversight. We are attempting to discharge those responsibilities.”

The House and Senate have conducted limited inquiries into the surveillance program, which many Democrats contend is illegal.