Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee blocked a move by Democrats yesterday to subpoena Justice Department memos on the use of torture, intimidation and other abusive tactics in interrogation of suspected terrorists.
But several GOP senators, including the committee chairman, Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), called on the Bush administration to give Congress the documents and warned that they might support a subpoena at some point, just not now.
Hatch said he asked Attorney General John D. Ashcroft and White House counsel Alberto R. Gonzales to turn over the 23 memos -- some of which suggested legal justification for abuse of prisoners -- and believed they would do so.
He described the Democrats' subpoena request as a "dumb-ass thing to do" and a "fishing expedition . . . to make a political point" but added that "I think the White House should comply" with the committee's earlier requests for the documents.
Democrats, accusing the administration of having "snubbed" and "stonewalled" the Senate on the issue, remained skeptical of administration intentions, however, and argued that subpoenas were the only guaranteed way to get the material.
"Hiding these documents from view is the brazen sign of a coverup, not cooperation," said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.), ranking minority member, who requested the subpoena on behalf of Democrats on the panel. "I haven't seen this kind of stonewalling since the Nixon era," he added.
But Republicans contended that Leahy's proposed subpoena was premature, overly broad and a threat to national security. Some of the questions amount to a "dangerous intrusion" on the country's strategy for fighting terrorism, said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.).
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), a member of both the Judiciary and Armed Services committees, said Defense Department general counsel William J. Haynes II told him earlier this week that the Pentagon would give the Armed Services Committee some of the memos listed in the subpoena. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) said Democrats have received no such assurances.
In an attempt to strike a compromise, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) offered to give Ashcroft another week to turn over the documents or explain why they should not be released before the subpoenas would be served June 24. But, even though Hatch had earlier indicated interest in Feinstein's proposal, it was defeated, 10 to 9, on a strictly party-line vote.
At yesterday's hearing, Kennedy vowed to take the issue to the full Senate -- which Republicans control with 51 votes -- if the committee refused to act. "This is a defining issue about the ideals and values of this country," Kennedy said.