- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales yesterday agreed to hand over to some members of Congress previously secret documents on the government’s domestic terrorist-surveillance program.

Mr. Gonzales, who acknowledged last month that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court had issued orders bringing the program under its jurisdiction, said the documents would be shared with members of the House and Senate intelligence committees and the Senate Judiciary Committee’s chairman and ranking Republican.

The documents, which contain classified information, will not be made public.

“We’ve been working hard and having discussions to reach an appropriate accommodation as to how that access should be provided,” Mr. Gonzales told reporters in Washington. “Access will be made available starting today.”

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.

The Justice Department has said the program is “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.”

Last month, Mr. Gonzales announced that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court would monitor Justice Department intercepts of international calls involving terrorism suspects in this country.

He said an order establishing oversight was issued Jan. 10 and gave the department, which conducts the program through the National Security Agency, the “necessary speed and agility while providing substantial advantages.”

The announcement was considered a major concession by President Bush, who has argued since the secret program was publicly disclosed in 2005 that he did not need or want to use the special intelligence court.

During a Jan. 18 hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Mr. Gonzales was challenged by panel members on why the Bush administration had taken more than five years to seek oversight by an independent court for its wiretapping program.

Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, the panel’s ranking Republican, has been critical of the White House for its refusal to disclose details of the surveillance program. He called the policy a “clear-cut violation” of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and said the administration could have moved quicker to get court approval.

“I cannot help but conclude that there hasn’t been a sufficient sense of urgency on behalf of the Department of Justice to get this job done faster,” he said.

He said yesterday that the documents would “not be made public until I’ve had a chance to see them.”

Rep. Heather A. Wilson, New Mexico Republican and a senior member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said the administration did not intend to release other documents that explain how the FISA court’s orders comply with the 1978 surveillance law the court oversees.

“We are playing hide the ball down at the Justice Department,” said Mrs. Wilson, who told House intelligence committee Chairman Silvestre Reyes, Texas Democrat, that she would support the issuance of a subpoena if necessary.

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat and Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, said the Bush administration made “the right decision” in changing its course of “unilaterally reauthorizing the warrantless surveillance program.”

“Only with an understanding of the contours of the wiretapping program and the scope of the court’s orders can the Judiciary Committee determine whether the administration has reached the proper balance to protect Americans while following the law and the principles of checks and balances,” he said.

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