Attorney General Won't Rule Out Warrantless Wiretaps of Purely Domestic Telephone Conversations of Americans

Washington, D.C. – During a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee today, Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-CA) questioned Attorney General Alberto Gonzales about the NSA's secret domestic wiretapping program. 

The Administration has cited the Authorization to Use Military Force and the commander in chief powers as authorizing the NSA to intercept international communications into and out of the U.S. of persons linked to al Qaeda or related terrorist organizations.

After citing his concerns that there was no limiting principle to the Administration's claim of authority in the War on Terror, Rep. Schiff asked the Attorney General whether the Administration believes it has the authority to wiretap purely domestic calls between two Americans without seeking a warrant.

"I’m not going to rule it out," responded the Attorney General.

"This is very disturbing testimony," Rep. Schiff commented later, "and represents a wholly unprecedented assertion of executive power.  No one in Congress would deny the need to tap certain calls under court order -- but if the Administration believes it can tap purely domestic phone calls between Americans without court approval, there is no limit to executive power. This is contrary to settled law and the most basic constitutional principles of the separation of powers."

Rep. Schiff and Rep. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) have introduced bipartisan legislation -- the NSA Oversight Act -- to reassert that FISA and Title III are the sole authority for domestic surveillance.  The bill would:

1. Reiterate Exclusivity of Current FISA and Wiretap Laws - states that FISA and the federal criminal wiretap statutes shall continue to be the exclusive means by which domestic electronic surveillance may be conducted.

2. Clarify Military Force Statute - makes clear that the Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF), passed days after the September 11th attacks, does not provide an exception to that rule.

3. Require Congressional Action - makes clear that current laws apply unless Congress amends the laws or passes additional laws regarding electronic surveillance.

4. Require Report on the Extent of the Wiretapping Program - requires classified disclosure to Congress of information about U.S. persons who have been the subject of any such electronic surveillance.

Congressman Schiff co-founded the Democratic Study Group on National Security and is a member of the House Judiciary Committee and the House International Relations Committee.  He is also a former Assistant U.S. Attorney in Los Angeles.  Schiff is proud to represent California’s 29th Congressional District, which includes the communities of Alhambra, Altadena, Burbank, East Pasadena, East San Gabriel, Glendale, Monterey Park, Pasadena, San Gabriel, South Pasadena and Temple City.