Specter: Strong words, but no oath

The Senate Judicary Committee chairman refuses to make Alberto Gonzales swear to tell the truth.

Published February 6, 2006 3:14PM (EST)

Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Arlen Specter said Sunday that the Bush administration's legal justifications for its warrantless spying program have been "strained and unrealistic" so far. As he opened this morning's hearing into the matter, Specter suggested that the administration may have violated federal law's "forceful and blanket prohibition against any electronic surveillance without a court order."

That's a lot of tough talk from a Republican senator, but will it be followed by actions that match? The early indication: Don't count on it. As the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing began this morning, Specter said that he wouldn't be requiring Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to testify under oath -- despite the fact that Gonzales has testified under oath before the committee before, and despite the fact that he stands accused of lying to the committee under oath when Sen. Russ Feingold asked him about warrantless spying last year.

Patrick Leahy, the ranking Democrat on the committee, challenged Specter's decision and asked for the committee to vote on the issue. It did, and Specter's decision now stands on a party-line vote. Thus, while Gonzales said that he's willing to testify under oath -- and that his answers would be the same either way -- the Republicans on the committee have now ensured that he won't.

The decision may be largely symbolic: It's a crime to lie to Congress whether you're under oath or not, but no oath means no newspaper photographs of Gonzales' having raised his right hand.

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