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Gonzales says calls in U.S. could be tapped without warrant
He tells panel such action would be ordered only if talks are found to be terror-related
WASHINGTON - Attorney General Alberto Gonzales on Thursday left open the possibility that President Bush could order warrantless wiretaps on telephone calls occurring solely within the United States.
Such action would dramatically expand the potential reach of the National Security Agency's controversial surveillance program.
In response to a question from Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., before the House Judiciary Committee, Gonzales said the government would have to determine if a conversation was related to al-Qaida and crucial to fighting terrorism before deciding whether to listen in without court supervision.
"I'm not going to rule it out," Gonzales said of the possibility of monitoring purely domestic communications.
The comments mark a dramatic departure from previous statements by Gonzales, President Bush and others within the Bush administration, who have repeatedly stressed that an NSA eavesdropping program ordered after the Sept. 11 attacks was focused only on international communications.
Gonzales also reiterated earlier hints that there may be another program, or an expanded version of the NSA program, that has not been revealed.
Administration officials have acknowledged that Bush issued an order in October 2001 authorizing the NSA to intercept phone calls and e-mail between the United States and foreign nations in which one of the parties was suspected of some link to al-Qaida.
Gonzales and the Justice Department have argued that the program is constitutional and was effectively authorized by Congress when it approved the use of force against al-Qaida after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Many Democrats and some Republicans say that Congress intended no such authorization and that the program violates a 1978 intelligence law that set up a special court to oversee and approve all clandestine surveillance within the United States.
Lawmakers are considering several proposals to legalize the program in some way, while potential presidential candidate Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., has called for censure of Bush for ordering its use.
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