Correction to This Article
A Feb. 17 article incorrectly described the National Security Archive Fund as a privacy advocacy group. The fund advocates open government.
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Senate Rejects Wiretapping Probe

Wilson indicated that the House hearings will not have the sharply investigative tone that Rockefeller sought in his motion, which would have required the administration to detail its reasons and rationale for starting the surveillance program in late 2001.

"Sometimes minority parties call for oversight" of government programs for strictly partisan reasons, said Wilson, who faces a potentially strong Democratic challenger this fall. "The intelligence committees in my view are an exception to that rule. This is not political theater. . . . We ask tough questions, and we expect straight answers."

Meanwhile yesterday on the Senate side, Specter released a day-old letter in which Assistant Attorney General William E. Moschella seemed to reject the senator's request for testimony from Ashcroft and former deputy attorney general James B. Comey. Comey had raised questions about the NSA program. Some senators want to know more about Ashcroft's response to Comey's concerns during a 2004 conversation with top administration officials while Ashcroft was hospitalized for pancreatitis.

"We do not believe that Messrs. Ashcroft and Comey would be in a position to provide any new information" to the Judiciary Committee, Moschella said in his letter Wednesday to Specter.

In a victory for three privacy advocacy groups seeking Justice Department records about the program, U.S. District Judge Henry H. Kennedy Jr. ruled yesterday that the department cannot decide on its own what documents it will provide, because news reports in December revealing the program's existence have created a substantial public dialogue about presidential powers and individual privacy rights. Kennedy rejected Justice's argument that, because so much of the surveillance program involves classified information, the agency alone can determine when it is feasible to review and possibly release documents.

"President Bush has invited meaningful debate about the warrantless surveillance program," Kennedy wrote, alluding to comments Bush has made at news conferences and speeches acknowledging public disagreement about domestic spying. "That can only occur if DOJ processes its requests in a timely fashion and releases the information sought."

Justice spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said the department "has been extremely forthcoming about documents and information about the legal authorities" for the surveillance program.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which had requested the records under the Freedom of Information Act along with the Electronic Privacy Information Center and the National Security Archive Fund, cheered the ruling.

Kennedy agreed with the three groups that the Justice Department's decision to set its own time frame "would give the agency unchecked power to drag its feet and 'pay lip service' " to the law requiring the release of public information.

Staff writer Dan Eggen contributed to this report.

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