The question Gonzales won't answer

The White House says it's right on the spying issue. But what if it's wrong?

Published February 6, 2006 6:18PM (EST)

But what if we're wrong?

It's not a question the Bush administration seems to ask itself much; as the president himself said the other day, "Hindsight alone is not wisdom, and second-guessing is not a strategy." But it's a question that senators -- for once, from both sides of the aisle --- are asking Alberto Gonzales to consider today as he tries to defend the president's warrantless spying program.

Gonzales set out the familiar case this morning: The president has a lot of inherent authority as commander in chief, and Congress gave him even more when it adopted a joint resolution authorizing him to use force against those who attacked the United States on 9/11. Never mind that the White House sought -- and was refused -- authority to carry out actions within the United States. As the Associated Press reports, Gonzales is insisting that the warrantless spying program is both "lawful" and "reasonable" and that those who are raising questions about it are mostly "misinformed, confused or wrong."

But what if the White House is wrong?

Ted Kennedy put that question to Gonzales this morning, and he used it in a way that illustrates how Democrats can go after the White House on the spying issue in a way that doesn't make them look weak. Invoking for himself memories of 9/11, Kennedy said that Democrats and Republicans are united in their desire to keep Americans safe. But if it turns out that the warrantless spying program was illegal -- if, ultimately, a court is forced to throw out evidence against an accused terrorist because it was obtained unlawfully -- well, then, aren't Americans less safe than they would have been otherwise?

Gonzales didn't have an answer to that question, at least not one that didn't beg it. Again and again, he simply insisted that the administration wasn't wrong.

Judiciary Committee chairman Arlen Specter went at it a different way but with pretty much the same result. Urging Gonzales to put the issue of warrantless spying before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, Specter told Gonzales: "There are a lot of people who think you're wrong. What do you have to lose if you're right?" Gonzales' answer was no answer at all. "Obviously," he said, "we would consider and are always considering methods of fighting the war effectively against al-Qaida."

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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Arlen Specter D-pa. Espionage Ted Kennedy