Mukasey backs Bush efforts on wiretapping (Commonwealth Club; Claims Bush Admin 9/11 Foreknowledge, Criminal Negligence)

Attorney General Michael Mukasey defended the Bush administration's wiretapping program Thursday to a San Francisco audience and suggested the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks could have been prevented if the government had been able to monitor an overseas phone call to the United States.
The government "shouldn't need a warrant when somebody picks up a phone in Iraq and calls the United States," Mukasey said in a question-and-answer session after a speech to the Commonwealth Club.
Before the 2001 terrorist attacks, he said, "we knew that there had been a call from someplace that was known to be a safe house in Afghanistan and we knew that it came to the United States. We didn't know precisely where it went. You've got 3,000 people who went to work that day, and didn't come home, to show for that."
Mukasey did not specify the call to which he referred. He also did not explain why the government, if it knew of telephone calls from suspected foreign terrorists, hadn't sought a wiretapping warrant from a court established by Congress to authorize terrorist surveillance, or hadn't monitored all such calls without a warrant for 72 hours as allowed by law. The Justice Department did not respond to a request for more information.
A congressional investigation found in 2003 that the National Security Agency had intercepted messages between one of the Sept. 11 hijackers and an al Qaeda safe house in the Middle East as early as 1999, but had not shared the information with other agencies.
Mukasey also defended President Bush's insistence on retroactive immunity for telecommunications companies that have cooperated with the administration's surveillance program, in which phone calls and e-mails between U.S. citizens and foreign terrorist suspects were intercepted without warrants.
Customers are suing AT&T and other companies for allegedly violating their privacy, in a series of cases that have been consolidated before a federal judge in San Francisco. A federal law authorizing the surveillance program expired in February, and Bush says he will not sign an extension unless it retroactively shields companies that have participated in the program from liability. The Senate has passed such a bill but the House has rejected it.
"They have cooperated," Mukasey said of the companies, without naming them. "It just ain't fair to ask somebody to cooperate with the government" and face a lawsuit for substantial damages, he said.
If Congress denies the companies retroactive immunity, he said, the firms will withdraw their voluntary participation and the government will have to seek court orders, losing time and potentially valuable intelligence and risking exposure of secret information.
"We face the prospect of disclosure in open court of what they (the companies) did, which is to say the means and methods with which we collect foreign intelligence against foreign targets," Mukasey said.
His Commonwealth Club speech focused on the Justice Department's prosecutions of federal and state officials for political corruption, an effort that Mukasey said is carried out "without regard to political affiliation."
He was asked about the Justice Department's refusal to prosecute two administration officials, presidential Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten and former White House counsel Harriet Miers, for contempt of Congress after they refused to testify about whether politics was behind the firings of U.S. attorneys in 2006-07. The House Judiciary Committee filed its own lawsuit over the issue after the department balked.
Mukasey reiterated what he had told House Democratic leaders, that executive privilege - a president's authority to keep certain documents and conversations confidential - covers top presidential aides even in discussions that do not directly involve the president.
"The president has to have a circle around him of people who can give him advice in confidence and understand that they are not going to be called to account," the attorney general said. Otherwise, he said, "he will not get candid advice."
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