- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 18, 2007

1:40 p.m.

Senators today demanded details from Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales about new orders putting the government’s domestic spying program under court review — and questioned why it took so long to do so.

Meanwhile, the presiding judge of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court said she had no objection to disclosing legal orders and opinions about the program, which targets people linked to al Qaeda, but the Bush administration would have to approve release of the information.

Mr. Gonzales and National Intelligence Director John D. Negroponte said it was uncertain whether the court orders and details about the program would be disclosed.

Mr. Negroponte, testifying before the House Intelligence Committee, said separation-of-powers issues may be involved in turning over information to Congress about the program.

At issue is how the secret panel of judges will consider evidence when approving government requests to monitor suspected al Qaeda agents’ phone calls and e-mails between the United States and other countries.

Until last week, the National Security Agency (NSA) conducted the surveillance without a court warrant, but the Justice Department announced yesterday that the FISA court, as it is known, began overseeing the program with a Jan. 10 order.

Mr. Gonzales, testifying today before the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he may not be able to release details of the order.

“Are you saying that you might object to the court giving us a decision that you publicly announced?” asked committee chairman Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat. “Are we Alice in Wonderland here?”

Mr. Gonzales responded that it was “not my decision to make.”

“There is going to be information about operational details about how we’re doing this that we want to keep confidential,” he said.

Sen. Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Republican, questioned whether the orders give the FISA court a programmatic or blanket authority to approve all wiretapping requests. Although Justice Department attorneys have assured him that is not the case, Mr. Specter said that “we need to know more on the oversight process.”

He also asked Mr. Gonzales why the spying program was only last week put under judicial review after the Bush administration acknowledged its existence a little more than a year ago.

“It is a little hard to see why it took so long,” Mr. Specter said. “The heavy criticism the president took on the program was very harmful in the political process and for the reputation of the country.”

President Bush secretly authorized the program shortly after the September 11 attacks and vigorously defended it as essential to national security after it was revealed in December 2005. The president will not reauthorize the program once it expires, officials said.

The FISA court already has approved at least one warrant to conduct surveillance involving a person suspected of having ties to al Qaeda or an associated terror group.

In a letter released at the Senate hearing, FISA court presiding Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly said she has no objection to giving lawmakers copies of orders and opinions relating to the secret panel’s oversight of the spy program.

“However, the court’s practice is to refer any requests for classified information to the Department of Justice. In this instance, the documents that are responsive to your request contain classified information, and, therefore, I would ask you to discuss the matter with the attorney general or his representatives,” Judge Kollar-Kotelly wrote in her letter yesterday. “If the executive and legislative branches reach agreement for access to this material, the court will, of course, cooperate with the agreement.”

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