Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy and the panel’s ranking Republican, Sen. Arlen Specter, yesterday again asked Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales to justify the Bush administration’s domestic terrorist surveillance program.
In a letter, Mr. Leahy of Vermont and Mr. Specter of Pennsylvania said their renewed interest in asking for new information comes in the wake of testimony last week by former Deputy Attorney General James Comey, who said the Justice Department had concerns about the legal basis for the program and refused to certify it for a period of time in 2004.
“This committee has made no fewer than eight formal requests over the past 18 months — to the White House, the attorney general, or other Department of Justice officials — seeking documents and information related to this surveillance program,” they said.
“These requests have sought the executive branch legal analysis of this program and documents reflecting its authorization by the president,” they said. “You have rebuffed all requests for documents and your answers to our questions have been wholly inadequate and, at times, misleading.”
The lawmakers described the information as “crucial” before the committee begins consideration of any of the administration’s proposed changes to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. They set a deadline of June 5 for the Justice Department to respond.
The surveillance program, begun in 2001 after the September 11 attacks, gave law-enforcement authorities the ability to monitor telephone calls and e-mails to and from the United States involving people suspected by the government of having terrorist links.
The Bush administration vigorously defended the legality of the program, saying it would be impossible to obtain warrants in time to intercept phone calls of those suspected of belonging to al Qaeda. Mr. Gonzales has described the program as essential in the war on terrorism, adding that it “ensures we have in place an early warning system to detect and prevent a terrorist attack.”
But Mr. Comey testified that in March 2004, when he was acting attorney general, he informed the White House the Justice Department had concluded that the classified surveillance program had “no legal basis” and would not certify it.
Before the committee, he described how Mr. Gonzales, then White House counsel, and former White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. arrived at the hospital bedside of Attorney General John Ashcroft, who was extremely ill, and attempted to persuade him to certify the program that he had to sign off on every 45 days since its 2001 inception.
“When you failed, because Mr. Ashcroft refused,” the senators said in the letter, “Mr. Comey testified that the program was nonetheless certified over the objections of the Department of Justice. That apparently prompted a number of high-ranking Justice officials to consider resigning en masse.”
Mr. Bush, Mr. Comey said, met with both him and FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III within days of the episode and told them to change the program to bring it into compliance with the law.
The lawmakers said the incident raised “very serious questions” about Mr. Gonzales’ behavior and commitment to the rule of law.
“The stonewalling by you and the administration must end,” they said.