Records on Spy Program Turned Over to Lawmakers

Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 1, 2007; Page A02

The Justice Department turned over documents about the government's controversial domestic spying program to select members of Congress yesterday, ending a two-week standoff that included pointed threats of subpoenas from Democrats.

The deal appears to resolve the latest conflict between Congress and the administration over the National Security Agency's surveillance effort, and it provides new evidence of the administration's more accommodating approach to the Democrats who now control Congress.

The agreement follows the administration's announcement two weeks ago that it was replacing NSA's warrantless surveillance program with a plan approved by the secret court that administers the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA. The NSA had conducted the domestic spying for more than five years without court oversight.

Under yesterday's accord, announced by Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, more than three dozen lawmakers will have access to the secret court orders governing the spying program that were issued Jan. 10 and the applications from the Justice Department that preceded them. The lawmakers include the House and Senate leaders, the members of the two intelligence panels and the heads of the two judiciary committees, officials said.

But Gonzales and other Bush administration officials also indicated that they had no intention of making the orders and related documents available to the public. The lawmakers and staff who view the records will be subject to strict statutes that bar disclosure of classified information. Congressional aides said it was unclear how much new information could be shared with the public.

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the documents would help determine "what further oversight or legislative action is necessary.

"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," Leahy said.

Gonzales -- in remarks to reporters during an unrelated event announcing the formation of a human-trafficking unit at Justice -- played down any conflict with lawmakers. He said: "It's never been the case where we've said we would never provide access."

Gonzales said the orders cannot be released publicly because the subject matter is "highly classified."

One Justice official said Gonzales decided two weeks ago that both of the intelligence panels, along with Leahy and Arlen Specter (Pa.), the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, should have access to the records.

But several congressional aides, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to discuss the details of the negotiations, described a tense two-week standoff between the administration and lawmakers from both parties over the issue.

The staff members said the push for access was driven by Rep. Silvestre Reyes (D-Tex.) and Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) -- the heads of the House and Senate intelligence panels -- who warned Justice Department officials that they would face congressional subpoenas if they did not turn over the records.

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