Administration to hand over material on eavesdropping

Gonzales agrees to give classified records on secret program to Congress

February 01, 2007|By Richard A. Serrano | Richard A. Serrano,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- A two-week standoff over documents in the White House domestic spying program came to an end yesterday when Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales agreed to turn over to Congress classified material about secret eavesdropping.

The Bush administration last month said it would put its surveillance of potential terrorist activities under supervision of a federal court but did not disclose details of its new eavesdropping program. A key Senate panel, newly controlled by Democrats, demanded access to the records to gauge whether the administration was breaking any laws in tracking terror suspects.

The decision to share information with Congress was the latest concession by the Bush administration, which has argued that it had the right to conduct its "war on terror" as it deems necessary and that secrecy is vital to national security. The documents, which include applications for electronic wiretaps and orders from the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court, will be made available to congressional committees only, not to the public.

"We obviously would be concerned about the public disclosure that may jeopardize the national security of our country," Gonzales said. "But we're working with the Congress to provide the information that it needs."

Some of the documents were made available to Congress on Wednesday, according to a Capitol Hill source.

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, a Vermont Democrat who leads the Senate Judiciary Committee, said his panel will review the records before "deciding what further oversight or legislative action is necessary." Only then, he said, "can the Judiciary Committee determine whether the administration has reached the proper balance to protect Americans."

Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, a moderate who is the ranking Republican on the panel, had joined the Democrats in demanding that the records be turned over. At a spirited hearing last month, he sharply criticized the attorney general for his refusal to release the documents even though the FISA court's presiding judge had no objections.

Yesterday, Specter, while thanking the administration for releasing the records to the committee, added that he might at some point make them public, as long as the materials do not violate privacy rules or jeopardize legitimate federal investigations.

"They will not be made public until I've had a chance to see them," he said. But, Specter said, "my own view is that there ought to be the maximum disclosure to the public consistent with national security procedures."

Central to the dispute has been the White House argument that extraordinary steps must be taken to protect Americans from further terrorist plots since the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and conflicting concerns among Democrats and civil libertarians that the spying appears to be a wholesale violation of individual freedoms in this country.

Under the Terrorist Surveillance Program, the National Security Agency eavesdropped on telephone and e-mail conversations coming into and out of the United States without going through the usual process of first getting a warrant from the FISA court. The program was launched weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and remained secret until it was exposed in The New York Times in late 2005, creating a public furor.

Richard A. Serrano writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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