WASHINGTON The Senate Judiciary Committee subpoenaed the White House and Vice President Dick Cheney s office today for documents relating to President Bush s controversial eavesdropping program that operated warrant-free for five years.
Also named in subpoenas signed by committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., were the Justice Department and the National Security Council. The four parties have until July 18 to comply, according to a statement by Leahy s office.
The committee wants documents that might shed light on internal disputes within the administration over the legality of the program, which Bush put under court review earlier this year.
Our attempts to obtain information through testimony of administration witnesses have been met with a consistent pattern of evasion and misdirection, Leahy said in his cover letters for the subpoenas. There is no legitimate argument for withholding the requested materials from this committee.
Echoing its response to previous congressional subpoenas to former administration officials Harriet Miers and Sara Taylor, the White House gave no indication that it would comply.
We re aware of the committee s action and will respond appropriately, White House spokesman Tony Fratto said. It s unfortunate that congressional Democrats continue to choose the route of confrontation.
In fact, the Judiciary Committee s three most senior Republicans Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, former chairman Orrin Hatch of Utah and Chuck Grassley of Iowa sided with Democrats on the 13-3 vote last week to give Leahy the power to issue the subpoenas.
The showdown between the White House and Congress could land in federal court.
Leahy s committee and its counterpart in the House have issued the subpoenas as part of a sweeping look at how much influence the White House exerts over the Justice Department and its chief, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.
The probe, in its sixth month, began with an investigation into whether administration officials ordered the firings of eight federal prosecutors, for political reasons. The House and Senate Judiciary committees previously had subpoenaed Miers, one-time legal counsel, and Taylor, a former political director, in that probe.
But with senators of both parties already concerned about the constitutionality of the administration s efforts to root out terrorism suspects in the United States, the committee shifted to the broader question of Gonzales stewardship of Justice and his willingness to go along with the wiretapping program.
The Bush administration secretly launched the spy program, run by the National Security Agency, in 2001 to monitor international phone calls and e-mails to or from the United States involving people the government suspected of having terrorist links. The program, which did not require investigators to seek warrants before conducting surveillance, was revealed in December 2005.
After the program was challenged in court, Bush put it under the supervision of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, established in 1978. The president still claims the power to order warantless spying.
Debate continues over whether the program violates people s civil liberties, and the administration has gone to great lengths to keep it running with extensive presidential discretion.
Piquing the committee s interest was vivid testimony last month by former Deputy Attorney General James Comey about the extent of the White House s effort to override the Justice Department s objections to the program in 2004.
Comey told the Judiciary Committee that Gonzales, then-White House counsel, tried to get Attorney General John Ashcroft to reverse course and recertify the program. At the time, Ashcroft lay in intensive care, recovering form gall bladder surgery.
Ashcroft refused, as did Comey, to whom Ashcroft had temporarily shifted the power of his office during his illness.
The White House recertified the program unilaterally. Ashcroft, Comey, FBI Director Robert Mueller and their staffs prepared to resign. Bush ultimately relented and made changes to the classified program that the Justice officials had demanded, and the agency eventually recertified it.
The fight was one of the most bitter disputes of the Bush presidency and questions remain over whether the program tramples people s civil liberties. The administration says the program is crucial to preventing more terrorist attacks.
Fratto defended the surveillance program as lawful and limited.
It s specifically designed to be effective without infringing Americans civil liberties, Fratto said. The program is classified for a reason its purpose is to track down and stop terrorist planning. We remain steadfast in our commitment to keeping Americans safe from an enemy determined to use any means possible including the latest in technology to attack us.
Majority Democrats and some Republicans are skeptical and have sought to find out more details about the program and how it has been administered.
Leahy s panel is required to serve the subpoenas to specific people within the offices named. One is addressed to Gonzales, while the others are addressed to: David S. Addington, Cheney s chief of staff; White House Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten, V. Phillip Lago, executive secretary of the National Security Council - or other custodian of records in their offices.
The subpoenas themselves seek a wide array of documents on the program from the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks to the present. Among them are any documents that include analysis or opinions from Justice, the National Security Agency which administers the program the Defense Department, the White House, or any entity within the Executive Branch on the legality of the electronic surveillance program.
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