Lawmakers Urge More Executive Branch Oversight

By Charles Babington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 3, 2006

The Bush administration's reluctance to provide lawmakers with documents related to domestic surveillance, the response to Hurricane Katrina and other matters prompted stern complaints from Congress yesterday, as Democrats in particular vowed to push for more aggressive oversight of the executive branch.

The sharpest exchanges involved the administration's legal reasoning for tasking the National Security Agency to monitor Americans' international calls and e-mails without obtaining a court warrant. The Senate Judiciary Committee has scheduled a hearing on the issue starting Monday, but some members said the inquiry will be pointless if the administration refuses to share legal documents that rationalized the eavesdropping program soon after the 2001 terrorist attacks.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) asked Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) to "take all appropriate steps, including subpoenas" to compel the Justice Department to turn over its classified legal opinions on the NSA program. Specter met last night with Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales but declined to say whether Gonzales had shown a willingness to disclose more documents.

"That's a subject which will be addressed at the hearing" on Monday, where Gonzales will be the only witness, Specter said in an interview.

Justice spokeswoman Tasia Scolinos said the department "has been extremely clear and forthcoming about the legal rationale for the terrorist surveillance program," referring to a 42-page "white paper" on the topic issued last month. "The attorney general has personally addressed this issue at length."

President Bush has said the warrantless NSA eavesdropping is required in order to act quickly on conversations involving terrorist suspects. But Specter and others have said the program appears to violate the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, and they have pressed the administration to explain why the law does not provide the needed eavesdropping leeway.

Feinstein released a letter yesterday from 14 legal scholars or former federal officials challenging the legality of the NSA program. At least one of the signers -- former FBI director William S. Sessions, who was appointed by President Ronald Reagan -- has strong Republican credentials.

The letter said the Justice Department has "failed to assert any plausible legal defense for the National Security Agency's domestic spying program." Accepting the department's justifications for the program, it said, "would require a radical rewriting of clear and specific legislation to the contrary."

Democrats on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence joined the call yesterday for more disclosure by the administration regarding the NSA program's legality.

"I'm deeply troubled by what I see as the administration's continued effort to selectively release intelligence information that supports its policy or political agenda while withholding equally pertinent information that does not do that," ranking Democrat John D. Rockefeller IV (W.Va.) told Director of National Intelligence John D. Negroponte.

Six GOP senators held a news conference yesterday defending the NSA program. Sen. Jeff Sessions (Ala.) called it "absolutely necessary to prevent another 9/11 catastrophe."

Lawmakers, including some Republicans, also have pressed the administration to provide more documents concerning its response to Hurricane Katrina, which ravaged New Orleans and nearby regions last year. White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr., in a recent letter to the Senate Governmental Affairs panel, said the administration "is committed to continue to provide information to the committee."

Also yesterday, Democratic Sens. Barbara Boxer (Calif.), John F. Kerry (Mass.) and Frank Lautenberg (N.J.) said they would seek a "sense of the Senate" resolution that the White House should "provide the public with a thorough account of the meetings the president, his staff, and senior executive branch officials had" with disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Staff writers Dan Eggen and Spencer S. Hsu contributed to this report.

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