Ashcroft Tells of Surveillance Disputes

By Paul Kane Staff Writer
Friday, June 22, 2007

Former attorney general John D. Ashcroft told the House intelligence committee yesterday about disputes in the Bush administration over aspects of its domestic surveillance program, which peaked in the March 2004 visit to his hospital bedside by White House officials seeking his change of heart.

House Intelligence Chairman Silvestre Reyes (D-Tex.) said the two-hour closed-door hearing covered Ashcroft's "whole tenure as attorney general." The hearing, Reyes said, examined how the administration viewed the use of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act provisions requiring a special court to issue warrants for domestic eavesdropping.

The panel heard last week from former deputy attorney general James B. Comey, whose mid-May testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee about the 2004 hospital episode sparked an outcry among congressional Democrats. Next month, Reyes said, the committee will hear private testimony from Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III and CIA Director Michael V. Hayden, with the goal of holding public hearings in the fall.

Reyes declined to detail the specifics of Ashcroft's testimony but said the former attorney general, now in private practice, gave the panel "very candid advice" as it considers drafting new legislation that could rewrite FISA. There was "robust and enormous debate" within the Bush administration about the post-Sept. 11, 2001, program, he said.

But another member of the panel, Rep. Rush D. Holt (D-N.J.), said that Ashcroft did not give detailed explanations of what he was so concerned about in 2004, more than two years after the program's inception. "He gave long, rambling, nonspecific answers," Holt said.

The Senate Judiciary Committee, frustrated by what Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) called "stonewalling" of its requests for information about the dispute by the Bush administration, approved subpoenas yesterday for documents from the Justice Department and the White House related to the authorization and legal justifications for the surveillance program.

Following the committee's practice, it withheld issuing the subpoenas pending further negotiations with the administration. In a demonstration of lawmakers' bipartisan concerns, three Republicans joined Democrats in the 13 to 3 vote to authorize the subpoenas. "We are asking not for intimate operational details but for the legal justifications and analysis underlying these programs that affect the rights of every American," Leahy said.

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