Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales showed his unbending loyalty this week as he defended the Bush administration's warrantless wiretapping program before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Under pointed questioning by both Democratic and Republican senators, Mr. Gonzales conceded that "Congress has a role to play in time of war," but still barely budged from the idea that, when it comes to the war on terrorism, all bets are off as far as this administration is concerned.
Mr. Gonzales' failure to grasp the heart of what's wrong with the eavesdropping program is, unfortunately, consistent with the administration's willingness to bend the rules on torture, detention and other protocols so long as terrorists are the target. He told the Judiciary Committee that Mr. Bush rejected a broader version of the wiretap program that would have involved intercepting phone calls and e-mail messages solely within the U.S., because that would have set off a lot of opposition once it was revealed. Instead, Mr. Gonzales seemed to suggest that the administration's narrower program of monitoring communication between people in America and known or suspected members of al-Qaida who are outside the U.S. is acceptable because it is more popular. And he continued to insist that the program is legal, as if repeating that mantra would make it so.
In trying to navigate between national security and personal privacy, the administration has struck the wrong balance, despite Mr. Gonzales' interpretations to the contrary. As several senators noted during the hearing, executive authority may have expandable limits during times of war or crisis, but those limits are not infinite. Yet Mr. Gonzales continued this administration's disdainful treatment of Congress by suggesting that it could not be trusted to amend or update the law to give the president explicit authority to do what he wanted to do.
Mr. Gonzales may be called again before the Judiciary Committee, and he is scheduled to appear at a closed-door session of the Senate Intelligence Committee tomorrow. We can only hope that at some point, the nation's chief legal officer will recognize his broader duty to uphold the rule of law on behalf of the American people instead of acting solely out of loyalty to the current occupant of the White House.