Thursday, February 01, 2007

U.S. lets lawmakers see court spying documents

U.S. lets lawmakers see court spying documents
By Thomas Ferraro

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said on Wednesday he would let selected members of the Democratic-led U.S. Congress see secret court documents that authorized President George W. Bush's newly revised domestic spying program.

Lawmakers and civil liberties groups called it a significant first step for an administration that in the past often refused to provide information to Congress, but they urged the Bush administration to provide full details about the program.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, said he would review the documents and then decide if "further (congressional) oversight or legislative action is necessary."

In Cincinnati on Wednesday, the American Civil LibertiesUnion urged a federal appeals court to uphold a lower-court ruling against the domestic spying program, even though the White House had agreed a special court could monitor the eavesdropping.

A U.S. district court in August ruled the program violated the Constitution and a 1978 law prohibiting surveillance of U.S. citizens on U.S. soil without the approval of the special court. The government appealed.

On January 17, the administration announced an end to the 5-year-old warrantless surveillance program, two weeks after Democrats took control of Congress and vowed to bring the program in line with the law. The surveillance program will now be subject to approval from the secret U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

Critics had charged Bush overstepped his power after the September 11 attacks with warrantless domestic spying as well as actions such as holding terrorism suspects indefinitely without charges and interrogations that some said amounted to torture.

At a January 18 Judiciary Committee hearing, Democrats and Republicans alike demanded that Gonzales provide details about the agreement the Justice Department had reached with the secret court.

They cited a letter from the presiding judge stating the court would have no objections to giving the committee confidential information, but that it would be up to the Justice Department.

After considering it for nearly two weeks, Gonzales said he was now prepared to allow certain members of Congress to see the court's orders and other related documents.


Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, called Gonzales' decision "a significant step forward. I'm going to reserve judgment on the program itself until I have had a chance to review it," he said.

Gonzales said the Bush administration was prepared to provide access to the secret court documents to Leahy and Specter as well as to members of the House and Senate intelligence committees.

The highly classified documents would not be released publicly, he said.

The ACLU called making the documents available to key lawmakers a good first step, but urged Gonzales to provide Congress with full details about the program.

The ACLU's lead attorney in the appeals court case argued the group's legal challenge to the domestic wiretapping program should not be dropped simply because the government had volunteered not to renew the warrantless eavesdropping activities.

Saying the Bush administration was still claiming the "inherent authority" to engage in eavesdropping without a warrant, Ann Beeson told the three-judge panel that "a failure to decide the case could leave it up to the president to decide when and whether to obey the law."

(Additional reporting by Andrea Hopkins in Cincinnati and James Vicini in Washington)