VP Cheney role surfaces in U.S. domestic spying

Thursday, January 5, 2006

United States Vice President Dick Cheney, in a speech to the Heritage Foundation on Wednesday, admitted to a key role in the domestic spying program. In a ringing defense of the warrantless eavesdropping authorized by President Bush, Cheney said he had "personally presided" over most briefings of selected Capitol Hill lawmakers about the program, which was begun in response to the 9/11 attacks and after Congress passed a September 2001 resolution authorizing the use of force to combat terrorism.

The National Security Agency (NSA) has been monitoring certain domestic telephone calls and emails, under the condition that the other end of the message is to or from a foreign location, the White House has admitted. In addition, the New York Times has reported that the agency has been conducting a widespread data-mining operation of such messages, hoping to identify patterns that might tip off the U.S. government to terrorist operations. Bush quickly backed up the decision by Michael Hayden, then NSA chief and now deputy national intelligence director, repeatedly authorizing the NSA to conduct warrantless searches, according to published reports.

Cheney vigorously defended the program, arguing that it could have prevented the 9/11 attacks, though a Washington Post report of his speech notes flaws in his reasoning. Cheney avoided mention of words such as "warrantless" and gave no explanation of why the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court, which normally issues national security warrants, needed to be bypassed. He asserted however that "the civil liberties of the American people are unimpeded" by the "wartime measure."

Cheney may face pressure by some in Congress, such as Republican Senator Arlen Specter, who has pledged to investigate the eavesdropping program, to testify on Capitol Hill, though Cheney is known to be a major proponent of executive privilege and may well resist. The vice president, anticipating a "spirited debate" on the necessity of the program, said the leak of "highly classified" data to the NYTimes had been a "clear detriment to our national security."

The Justice Department launched a probe last week to seek the source of leaked information about the secretive program. No report has emerged that the Justice Department is making a formal inquiry into possible illegalities that might have occurred on the part of the NSA or White House. Many in Congress are interested in this point, as some see this surveillance of U.S. citizens as a violation of their Fourth Amendment right guarding against unreasonable searches.

The Justice Department head and former White House counsel, Alberto Gonzales, has defended the NSA program as legal and constitutional.