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Senators grill AG on spying program

WASHINGTON -- Senators still suspicious of the government's domestic spying program grilled Attorney General Alberto Gonzales yesterday over whether new oversight by a secret court will help protect people's privacy rights.

Gonzales offered few answers, maintaining during 3 1/2 hours of sharp rebukes that disclosing details of the program would expose sensitive security information.

His resistance was underscored by a letter from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court's presiding judge, offering to detail some of its new authority with lawmakers if allowed to by the Bush administration.

"Are you saying that you might object to the court giving us a decision that you publicly announced?" asked Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont. "Are we a little Alice in Wonderland here?"

Gonzales responded: "There is going to be information about operational details about how we're doing this that we want to keep confidential."

His appearance in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee came a day after the administration announced it would allow judicial review of the spying program that President Bush secretly authorized after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. Until last week, the National Security Agency conducted domestic surveillance of people suspected of links to Al Qaeda without court warrants.

Bush denied yesterday that there had been any change in the program, other than to receive a court's blessing of it.

"The courts yesterday said I did have the authority," the president said in an interview with Tribune Broadcasting. "That's important. And the reason it's important that they verify the legalities of the program is it means it's going to extend, make it extend beyond my presidency. This is a really important tool for future presidents to have."

He added: "Nothing has changed in the program except the court has said we've analyzed it and it's a legitimate way to protect the country."

In hearings on both sides of Capitol Hill, lawmakers said they welcomed the reversal by the Bush administration, which had previously opposed review by the so-called FISA Court. But they wanted to know more about how judges might consider evidence when approving government requests to monitor phone calls and e-mails between the United States and abroad.