Thursday, June 28, 2007

Senate steps up wiretapping probe

Senate steps up wiretapping probe
By Andrew Ward in Washington
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007
Published: June 28 2007 02:23 | Last updated: June 28 2007 02:23

A Senate committee has issued the White House and the justice department with subpoenas demanding the handover of documents relating to President George W. Bush’s controversial domestic surveillance programme.

The move marks an escalation of the inquiry into whether the Bush administration broke the law by eavesdropping on US citizens without court approval after the September 2001 terrorist attacks.

The probe is part of a growing range of congressional investigations against the Bush administration since the Democrats seized control of Capitol Hill in January, creating the impression of a White House under siege.

While Democrats are leading the push for information about the domestic surveillance programme, the three most senior Republicans on the Senate judiciary committee also voted in favour of issuing the subpoenas.

The bipartisan nature of the investigation reflects unease in both parties about the Bush administration’s aggressive use of executive power and its heavy influence over the Justice Department.

Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate judiciary committee, said the subpoenas were aimed at shedding light on how the eavesdropping was authorised and how the administration overcame opposition to the programme from the Justice Department.

Testimony from a former Justice Department official last month revealed how the White House sent senior officials to the hospital bedside of John Ashcroft, then-attorney-general, to seek his approval for the programme as he recovered from serious surgery. Mr Ashcroft refused to give his consent.

Mr Leahy said nine prior requests for information and documents had been met with a “consistent pattern of evasion and misdirection” from the White House and Justice Department, leaving the committee no option but to issue subpoenas.

“There is no legitimate argument for withholding the requested materials from this committee,” he said. “The administration cannot thwart the Congress’s conduct of its constitutional duties with sweeping assertions of secrecy and privilege.”

Mr Bush ordered the surveillance programme, conducted by the National Security Agency, soon after the 9/11 terror attacks to monitor international phone calls and e-mails to or from the US involving people suspected of having links with al-Qaeda. In dispute is whether the NSA was entitled to eavesdrop on US citizens without a warrant. The programme was brought under court supervision in January after a federal judge ruled last year that it was unconstitutional.

The White House said it would “respond appropriately” to the subpoenas, leaving open the possibility that it could challenge them. Legal experts said the process of enforcing a congressional subpoena was slow and cumbersome, making it possible for the White House to resist until long after Mr Bush has left office.

Tony Fratto, White House spokesman, insisted the surveillance programme was lawful and necessary to protect against terrorism. “It’s specifically designed to be effective without infringing Americans’ civil liberties,” he said. “The programme is classified for a reason – its purpose is to track down and stop terrorist planning.”

The subpoenas were issued to Josh Bolten, White House chief of staff, Phillip Lago, executive secretary of the National Security Council, and David Addington, chief of staff to Vice-President Dick Cheney. Another was directed at Alberto Gonzales, attorney-general.


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