By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 21, 2007
Vice President Cheney's office acknowledged for the first time yesterday that it has dozens of documents related to the administration's warrantless surveillance program, but it signaled that it will resist efforts by congressional Democrats to obtain them.
The disclosure by Cheney's counsel, Shannen W. Coffin, came on the day that the Senate Judiciary Committee had set as a deadline for the Bush administration to turn over documents related to the wiretapping program, which allowed the National Security Agency to monitor communications between the United States and overseas without warrants.
White House counsel Fred F. Fielding has also declined to turn over any documents about the program, telling lawmakers last week that more time was needed to locate records that might be responsive to the panel's subpoenas.
The committee's chairman, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), said yesterday that he will pursue contempt proceedings against administration officials if the documents are not produced.
"When the Senate comes back in the session, I'll bring it up before the committee," Leahy told reporters yesterday. "I prefer cooperation to contempt. Right now, there's no question that they are in contempt of the valid order of the Congress."
Administration spokesman Tony Fratto said in a statement that Fielding "is seeking to reach an accommodation" with lawmakers but that responding to the subpoenas will take more time.
"We have approached these discussions in a positive way that will not take us down the path of confrontation," Fratto said.
The dispute over NSA records is the latest in a series of battles between the Bush administration and Congress this year over access to witnesses and documents, including those sought in the continuing investigations by the House and Senate Judiciary committees into last year's firings of nine U.S. attorneys by the Justice Department.
In that case, the White House has asserted that the documents and witness testimony sought by Congress would improperly disclose internal deliberations, and thus are protected by a legal concept known as executive privilege.
Both Coffin and Fratto indicated that the administration is considering a similar argument in relation to the NSA program.
Nonetheless, Coffin identified by date a series of memos and orders that "may be responsive" to the Senate committee's demands. They include 43 separate authorizations from President Bush for the program, which had to be renewed approximately every 45 days beginning on Oct. 4, 2001.
The letter also lists dates, from October 2001 through February 2005, for 10 legal memoranda from the Justice Department. Although Cheney's office has copies of the memos, none of them "was rendered to the Office of the Vice President," Coffin wrote.
The disclosure of the existence of the documents and their dates sheds new light on some events surrounding the NSA program, including a now-famous legal dispute in March 2004. A half-dozen senior Justice officials threatened to resign if the White House did not agree to change parts of the program that Justice lawyers had determined were illegal. Coffin's letter indicates that Bush signed memos amending the program on March 19 and April 2 of that year. The details of the dispute have never been revealed publicly.