Judge orders Bush to come clean on spying records

    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
    under wraps.

    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
    information sought.”

    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
    said.

    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
    program.

    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