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Sununu Argues for Civil Liberties Safeguards


Joining us now is Senator John Sununu, a New Hampshire Republican. He's been pushing in the Senate for greater civil liberties protections for surveillance under the Patriot Act.

Senator, thanks for being with us.

Senator JOHN SUNUNU (Republican, New Hampshire): My pleasure.

NORRIS: First, help us understand the question of domestic spying that's come to light. Now the president says the domestic surveillance program is necessary and legal. From your understanding, is it legal?

Sen. SUNUNU: I don't know. It's really difficult to say without having all the information in front of you, and that could probably only be presented in some sort of a classified briefing. I think it does underscore, though, the importance of looking carefully at whether or not civil liberties are being protected, whether it's work being done by the National Security Administration, the NSA, or work done by law enforcement under the Patriot Act. We want to make sure that there are appropriate protections in place; that objections can be heard in front of a judge; and that people have, you know, the right to appeal their case if they think they've been prosecuted wrongly.

NORRIS: The president today, though, several times did say that civil liberties protections are in place in this domestic surveillance program. Would you agree with him?

Sen. SUNUNU: I really don't know about the domestic surveillance provision. I think in the Patriot Act, it's clear their original position was that they didn't have to do anything else to protect civil liberties. Bipartisan majorities in the House and the Senate feel otherwise, that we do need better protections on roving wiretaps; we do need a better judicial review process. All of these things have been incorporated into the conference reports. But, of course, our position is that there are a couple of other areas that really should be addressed, must be addressed, before we can get a final package.

NORRIS: Beyond civil liberties questions, there's also the question of executive power. And in addition to the president's statements today, where he says he is justified in approving the NSA to actually conduct this domestic surveillance program, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales says that when Congress authorized the use of military force after 9/11, that that was tantamount to giving the president broad powers to order domestic spying. He's essentially saying Congress gave the White House the thumbs up on this. Did it?

Sen. SUNUNU: I don't believe that that resolution, the use of force resolution, was carte blanche authorization for any new and significant expansion of domestic spying or even intelligence activity on the foreign front. I think that the authorization for those powers would have to be in existing law, and I think there were significant curtailments of different kinds of domestic surveillance. So I don't believe that the use of force resolution changed the status quo insofar as surveillance or civil liberties is concerned.

NORRIS: But that joint resolution did grant the president, quote, "all necessary and appropriate force to fight al-Qaeda." And it appears that the administration is focusing on that first word, `all.' Would that, indeed, grant them this latitude?

Sen. SUNUNU: Well, this is exactly why we need better oversight and discussion in a classified setting. My emphasis would certainly be on the use of force. It was authorization of the use of armed military, the Department of Defense assets and paramilitary groups within our intelligence agencies to engage in the use of force overseas to deal with these terrorists. And I think the attorney general has suggested an overly expansive reading.

NORRIS: Just one last question on the domestic surveillance program. For those who were made uncomfortable by this, who feel it's a violation of civil liberties or, as some assert, an actual violation of the law, what can you do about that since this is an executive order?

Sen. SUNUNU: Well, it's up to Congress to do something about it. It's up to Congress to conduct the necessary oversight, primarily the Intelligence and Judiciary committees to look at how the surveillance has been implemented, what safeguards there are in place and to make an honest assessment of whether additional statute, either authorizing the activity or curtailing the activity, are in order.

NORRIS: You heard the president in his radio address. We heard him last night. We heard him again today at the White House. Has he made his case? Has he convinced you that this is necessary?

Sen. SUNUNU: He certainly--no, he hasn't convinced me with regard to the Patriot Act, that's for certain, because I know that the modifications that I seek wouldn't do anything to undermine law enforcement's ability to get their job done. The changes that I seek weren't introduced a week ago or a month ago or even six months ago but nearly two years ago in legislation crafted by a bipartisan group of senators.

And I met with the attorney general. I encouraged the administration's staff simply to sit down months ago, work through some kind of an agreement. I know I wouldn't get 100 percent of what I wanted or our group wouldn't get everything we wanted--but work through our differences to come up with the best compromise possible, a compromise that would get through the House and Senate with good, bipartisan votes. And, you know, they've failed to do that. So my mind hasn't changed about the importance of striking this balance, and, you know, the events of the last couple of days have only strengthened my belief that it's an important consideration that we take.

NORRIS: Senator Sununu, thanks so much for being with us.

Sen. SUNUNU: My pleasure. Thank you, Michele.

NORRIS: US Senator John Sununu, a Republican from New Hampshire. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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