A federal judge ordered the Bush administration on Thursday to
release documents about its warrantless surveillance program or spell
out what it is withholding, a setback to efforts to keep the program
At the same time, the Republican chairman of the Senate Intelligence
Committee said he had worked out an agreement with the White House to
consider legislation and provide more information to Congress on the
eavesdropping program. The panel’s top Democrat, who has requested a
full-scale investigation, immediately objected to what he called an
abdication of the committee’s responsibilities.
U.S. District Judge Henry Kennedy ruled that a private group, the
Electronic Privacy Information Center, will suffer irreparable harm if
the documents it has been seeking since December are not processed
promptly under the Freedom of Information Act. He gave the Justice
Department 20 days to respond to the group’s request.
“President Bush has invited meaningful debate about the wireless
surveillance program,” Kennedy said. “That can only occur if DOJ
processes its FOIA requests in a timely fashion and releases the
Justice Department spokeswoman Tasia Scolinos said the department
has been “extremely forthcoming” with information and “will continue to
meet its obligations under FOIA.”
On Capitol Hill, lawmakers also have been seeking more information
about Bush’s program that allowed the National Security Agency to
eavesdrop _ without court warrants _ on Americans whose international
calls and e-mails it believed might be linked to al-Qaida.
After a two-hour closed-door session, Senate Intelligence Chairman
Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said the committee adjourned without voting on
whether to open an investigation. Instead, he and the White House
confirmed that they had an agreement to give lawmakers more information
on the nature of the program. The White House also has committed to
make changes to the current law, according to Roberts and White House
deputy press secretary Dana Perino.
“I believe that such an investigation at this point … would be
detrimental to this highly classified program and efforts to reach some
accommodation with the administration,” Roberts said.
Still, he promised to consider the Democratic request for a vote in a March 7 meeting.
Earlier, Bush spokesman Scott McClellan reiterated that Bush does
not need Congress’ approval to authorize the warrantless eavesdropping
and that the president would resist any legislation that might
compromise the program.
Later Thursday, Bush adviser Karl Rove told at the University of
Central Arkansas: “The purpose of the terrorist-surveillance program is
to protect lives. The president’s actions were legal and fully
consistent with the 4th Amendment and the protection of our civil
liberties under the constitution.”
West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller, the Intelligence Committee’s top
Democrat, said the White House had applied heavy pressure to
Republicans to prevent them from conducting thorough oversight. He
complained that Roberts didn’t even allow a vote on a proposal for a
13-point investigation that would include the program’s origin and
operation, technical aspects and questions raised by federal judges.
Rockefeller said the Senate cannot consider legislation because
lawmakers don’t have enough information. “No member of the Senate can
cast an informed vote on legislation authorizing or conversely
restricting the NSA’s warrantless surveillance program, when they
fundamentally do not know what they are authorizing or restricting,” he
It remains unclear what changes in law may look like. Roberts
indicated it may be possible “to fix” the 1978 Foreign Intelligence
Surveillance Act to authorize the president’s program. Perino said the
White House considers suggestions put forward by Sen. Mike DeWine,
R-Ohio, the starting point, particularly his proposal to create a
special subcommittee on Capitol Hill that would regularly review the
DeWine’s proposal would exempt Bush’s program from FISA. That law
set up a special court to approve warrants for monitoring inside the
United States for national security investigations.
Yet Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner, R-Va.,
left the closed hearing saying he has been working on a different
legislative change to FISA. “It seems that’s a logical place to start,
to upgrade FISA given the extraordinary expanse of technology in the 30
years that have lapsed,” he said.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., told a forum at
Georgetown University Law School Thursday night, “You cannot have
domestic search and seizure without a warrant.” He is drafting
legislation to require the foreign surveillance court to review Bush’s
program and determine if it is constitutional.
California Rep. Jane Harman, ranking Democrat on the House
Intelligence Committee, told the Georgetown audience the surveillance
“can and must comply” with the law requiring warrants from the special
court. However, she supported the need to conduct electronic
eavesdropping to combat terrorism.
Specter’s committee will continue to probe the program’s legality at
a Feb. 28 hearing. The Justice Department strongly discouraged him from
calling former Attorney General John Ashcroft and his deputy, James
Comey, to testify about the surveillance program.
Just as Attorney General Alberto Gonzales could not talk about the
administration’s internal deliberations when he appeared before the
committee earlier this month, neither can Ashcroft nor Comey, Assistant
Attorney General William Moschella said in a letter to Specter.
Associated Press writers Jennifer Loven, Mark Sherman and Larry Margasak contributed to this report.
© 2006 The Associated Press