WASHINGTON--For more than a year, senators on a panel that oversees the U.S. Department of Justice have been trying to get their hands on Bush administration documents illuminating a once-secret National Security Agency surveillance program that operated without prior court approval. Now they may get their chance.
At around midday on Thursday--after a few hours of stalling, a floor vote and one meeting venue change--the Senate Judiciary Committee finally rounded up enough votes to authorize subpoenas compelling Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and President Bush's recordskeeper to turn over all documents related to its operation and legal analysis of the warrantless regime. The vote here was 13-3, with three Republicans rejecting the measure and three Republicans joining 10 Democrats to approve it.
The action was necessary because of repeated "stonewalling" by the Bush administration, which has failed to surrender the necessary documents voluntarily, a number of committee Democrats and Republican co-chairman Arlen Specter (R-Penn.) said.
"I've been here with six administrations and have never known an administration on substantive issues like this to be so secretive and so unwilling to cooperate," Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said before the vote.
Of particular concern to some members are conflicting reports that have recently surfaced about the department's own views on the legality of the so-called "terrorist surveillance program." During a Senate appearance last year, Attorney General Attorney Gonzales indicated there was no dispute within the department that the wiretapping regime was within the law, but former Deputy Assistant Attorney General James Comey told politicians at a hearing last month that there was actually "substantial disagreement" on that front, Specter said.
Some committee members who voted for the subpoenas said the Bush administration shouldn't expect to get the electronic surveillance law changes it wants unless it provides more information about its eavesdropping activities. The administration has been lobbying Congress for a proposal that would, among other things, immunize from lawsuits all telecommunications companies that assist the U.S. government in its surveillance--seemingly a direct shot at scores of pending suits, including one targeting AT&T.
It's unclear when the subpoenas will be issued or what exactly they will request, although groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Democracy and Technology have each composed wishlists.
It also remains to be seen how the Bush administration will respond. Presidents in the past have attempted to use their executive privilege powers to decline all or part of such requests, although courts have curbed their power to do so. Specter, for his part, said, "if president is going to impose objections of executive privilege or attorney-client privilege, we will deal with that when that arises."
Meanwhile, there also been no further talk of subpoenaing executives at --an idea that arose last summer but was ultimately dropped.