It's official: a key U.S. Senate Democrat leader has escalated his committee's ongoing quest for more answers about a once-secret warrantless wiretapping program, issuing subpoenas on Wednesday to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and three other Bush administration officials.
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) formally requested an avalanche of documents describing the legal basis for the so-called Terrorist Surveillance Program and any other ongoing classified surveillance programs. Besides Gonzales, the senator targeted high-level attorneys at the White House, Vice President Dick Cheney's office and the National Security Council. The Senate Judiciary Committee, which Leahy heads, authorized the court orders by a bipartisan 13-3 vote last Thursday.
Among the desired documents are any certifications provided by the Justice Department or other executive branch officials that request assistance from telephone companies, Internet service providers, equipment manufacturers, or data processor. (Recall that a lawsuit filed by civil liberties groups is pending against AT&T concerning allegations that it cooperated illegally with the NSA and has spied on millions of innocent Americans. Meanwhile, the Bush administration has been pushing for legislation to immunize such companies from liability.)
In his letters to the officials, Leahy said the committee had made at least nine formal requests for information over the past 18 months but had been rebuffed on each attempt.
"The Administration cannot thwart the Congress's conduct of its constitutional duties with sweeping assertions of secrecy and privilege," he wrote. "The Committee seeks no intimate operational facts and we are willing to accommodate legitimate redactions of the documents we seek to eliminate reference to these details."
Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd said in an e-mail interview Wednesday that the agency, for its part, "will continue to work closely with the Congress as they exercise their oversight functions, and we will review this matter in the spirit of that longstanding relationship."
But he indicated that the politicians may not be able to get all the documents they're after. "It is vital to protect sensitive intelligence sources and methods associated with this kind of national security information, particularly when it relates to intelligence programs that are the subject of oversight by the Intelligence Committees," Boyd said. "We must also give appropriate weight to the confidentiality of internal Executive Branch deliberations."
Besides, any electronic surveillance that may have been done in connection with the "terrorist surveillance program" as of January 2007 is now being approved by the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, and information about those court orders have been shared with "appropriate" members of Congress, Boyd added.
The National Security Agency program first came to light in a December 2005 New York Times report, and since then, Bush administration officials have mostly defended their admitted failure to secure court approval for the eavesdropping. But in an appearance last month before the Judiciary Committee, former Deputy Assistant Attorney General James Comey told politicians that there was actually disagreement within the department about the regime's legality, arousing new suspicion among critics.
The documents are due in the committee's hands by July 18. The panel also requested in-person testimony by each of the subpoena recipients on that date but said they would waive that requirement if all of the requested documents are delivered on time.
Copies of the letters are available at Leahy's Web site.