Kansas senator says wiretaps ‘consistent with U.S. law’

The Kansas senator who oversees the nation’s intelligence-gathering on Monday defended a secret wiretapping program authorized by President Bush, even as experts back home expressed alarm.

U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, for the first time Monday acknowledged he had been aware of the secret program since becoming chairman in 2003. The program is “consistent with U.S. law and the Constitution,” Roberts’ spokeswoman said.

“Reflecting his constitutional responsibilities and authorities, the president has authorized a program which makes it far more likely that in the future, al-Qaida affiliated terrorists, like the 9-11 hijackers, will be identified and located prior to the next attack,” said the spokeswoman, Sarah Little.

She added: “Sen. Roberts believes that in a time of war, the president should have every lawful authority to protect the American people.”

Some Lawrence experts, however, questioned the legality of unwarranted wiretaps.

Bill Staples, a Kansas University professor of sociology who has written about government surveillance, said the Bush administration was “ignoring” the federal Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which in 1978 set up a court to authorize secret wiretaps.

“It certainly seems like they’re using executive privilege in a way that skirts the law and what the FISA court was intended to do,” Staples said.

He said if the surveillance act’s procedures were unwieldy, the Bush administration “ought to propose some method for redoing it, rather than simply ignoring the law.”

Phil Minkin, president of the Douglas County American Civil Liberties Union, said he was concerned about the wiretapping revelation, particularly in light of recent media reports that American anti-war groups had come under surveillance by the federal government.

“Under this kind of procedure, everyone is a suspect. Everyone in the United States is a suspect,” Minkin said. “That’s not very pleasant.”

But Little, Roberts’ spokeswoman, said the eavesdropping program had been “thoroughly reviewed” by offices in the National Security Agency and Department of Justice to ensure activities “are consistent with U.S. law and the preservation of civil liberties.”

Additionally, she said, Roberts is talking with Senate leaders about providing additional congressional oversight of the program.