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January 2005: Gonzales Said Bush Did Not ‘Authorize Actions’ In Contravention of Our Criminal Statutes

By Judd Legum  

"January 2005: Gonzales Said Bush Did Not ‘Authorize Actions’ In Contravention of Our Criminal Statutes"

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According to President Bush’s radio address today, as White House counsel, Alberto Gonzales personally approved Bush’s program for warrantless domestic wiretaps. By circumventing the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, those wiretaps violated federal law.

In a classified legal opinion, the administration argued the President had the power to order the warrantless search pursuant to his authority as commander-in-chief to wage war against al-Qaeda.

During his confirmation hearings for Attorney General in January 2005, Sen. Russ Feingold asked Gonzales about this precise issue:

SEN. FEINGOLD: I — Judge Gonzales, let me ask a broader question. I’m asking you whether in general the president has the constitutional authority, does he at least in theory have the authority to authorize violations of the criminal law under duly enacted statutes simply because he’s commander in chief? Does he — does he have that power?

After trying to dodge the question for a time, Gonzales issued this denial:

MR. GONZALES: Senator, this president is not — I — it is not the policy or the agenda of this president to authorize actions that would be in contravention of our criminal statutes.

In fact, that was precisely the policy of the President.

Extended transcript of the Feingold/Gonzales exchange:

SEN. FEINGOLD: I — Judge Gonzales, let me ask a broader question. I’m asking you whether in general the president has the constitutional authority, does he at least in theory have the authority to authorize violations of the criminal law under duly enacted statutes simply because he’s commander in chief? Does he — does he have that power?

MR. GONZALES: Senator, I — you — in my judgment, you phrase it sort of a hypothetical situation. I would have to know what — what is the — what is the national interest that the president may have to consider. What I’m saying is, it is impossible to me, based upon the question as you’ve presented it to me, to answer that question. I can say, is that there is a presumption of constitutionality with respect to any statute passed by Congress. I will take an oath to defend the statutes. And to the extent that there is a decision made to ignore a statute, I consider that a very significant decision, and one that I would personally be involved with, I commit to you on that, and one we will take with a great deal of care and seriousness.

SEN. FEINGOLD: Well, that sounds to me like the president still remains above the law.

MR. GONZALES: No, sir.

SEN. FEINGOLD: Again, you know, if this is something where — where it — you take a good look at it, you give a presumption that the president ought to follow the law, that — you know, that’s — to me, that’s not good enough under our system of government.

MR. GONZALES: Senator, if I might respond to that, the president is not above the law. Of course he’s not above the law. But he has an obligation, too. He takes an oath as well. And if Congress passes a law that is unconstitutional, there is a practice and a tradition recognized by presidents of both parties that he may elect to decide not to enforce that law. Now, I think that that would be –

SEN. FEINGOLD: I recognize that, and I tried to make that distinction, Judge, between electing not to enforce as opposed to affirmatively telling people they can do certain things in contravention of the law.

MR. GONZALES: Senator, this president is not — I — it is not the policy or the agenda of this president to authorize actions that would be in contravention of our criminal statutes.

SEN. FEINGOLD: Finally, will you commit to notify Congress if the president makes this type of decision and not wait two years until a memo is leaked about it?

MR. GONZALES: I will to advise the Congress as soon as I reasonably can, yes, sir.

‹ Former Rep. Bob Barr (R-GA) on Bush’s

Stumped: Condi Unable to Explain What Gave Bush Authority to Eavesdrop Without Warrant ›

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