Peoria Journal Star

December 20, 2005

Democrats assail wiretaps

By Dori Meinert
Copley News Service

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Sen. Dick Durbin and other Illinois Democrats on Monday sharply criticized President Bush's decision to allow domestic eavesdropping without court approval, while Rep. Ray LaHood defended the president's actions.

"There is no legal authority for the president to do this. The law is very clear. If you want to wiretap or eavesdrop on an American citizen, there are only two ways to do it and both involve court orders.

"The president is assuming more powers than he has been given and that is a very dangerous thing for this country," said Durbin, the second-highest Democrat in the Senate.

Bush acknowledged Saturday that he authorized the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on international phone calls and e-mails of people within the United States without seeking warrants. In a news conference Monday, Bush said he wants to continue the program to better pro-tect Americans from terrorists.

The controversy erupted as the Senate debates an extension of the Patriot Act, which permitted law enforcement agencies to seek warrants for wiretaps to investigate suspected terrorist activity.

Durbin said he is "encouraged" that Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Penn., plans to hold hearings on the matter when the Senate reconvenes in January. Durbin is a member of the committee.

Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., also supports congressional hearings.

"Once we have more information we'll know to what degree our laws were circumvented," Obama said. "But regardless, I am certain that we can do the intelligence gathering we need to do without eroding the civil liberties our founding fathers intended."

LaHood, R-Peoria, who sits on the House Intelligence Committee, said he only learned of the program last week when it was disclosed in The New York Times. But he said he was satisfied that congressional leaders had been properly informed.

"It came as a surprise to me, but I take the president at his word. He did it to protect Americans and to protect America, but he did it following procedures which he felt were appropriate, and consulting with the elected officials of Congress on the committees of jurisdiction and with the leadership. So I don't know how you can fault him," said LaHood, adding that he wouldn't object to a congressional inquiry.

"I don't think the president goes about breaking the law. This idea that he broke the law has to be proven and nobody has come up with the proof yet."

However, Rep. Lane Evans, D-Rock Island, said: "This is an abuse of our constitutional rights that weakens our country. This isn't what our country has fought for. We need accountability at every level of government. And we need to get to the bottom of this. We all take an oath to protect and defend the Constitution, not tear it up."

Rep. John Shimkus, R-Collinsville, acknowledged that Congress has an oversight role, but said: "I'm sure any investigation will just show that the President was advised he could do this, and he advised Congress he was doing this. The real question is who leaked this information."

Dori Meinert can be reached at (202) 737-7686 or dori.meinert@)