Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said Wednesday he will turn over secret documents detailing the government’s domestic spying program, ending a two-week standoff with the Senate Judiciary Committee over surveillance targeting terror suspects.
“It’s never been the case where we said we would never provide access,” Gonzales told reporters.
“We obviously would be concerned about the public disclosure that may jeopardize the national security of our country,” he said. “But we’re working with the Congress to provide the information that it needs.”
The documents held by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court — including investigators’ applications for permission to spy and judges’ orders — will be given to some lawmakers as early as Wednesday.
Gonzales said the documents would not be released publicly. “We’re talking about highly classified documents about highly classified activities of the United States government,” the attorney general said.
The records will be given to Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and the panel’s top Republican, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., who two weeks ago lambasted Gonzales for refusing to turn over documents that even the FISA Court’s presiding judge had no objection to releasing. At the time, Gonzales said it was unclear whether the court orders could be released without exposing sensitive security information.
The documents also will be available to lawmakers and staffers on the House and Senate intelligence committees. These people already were cleared to receive details about the controversial spy program.
Call for 'maximum disclosure'
Leahy said he welcomed the Bush administration decision to release the documents, which he said he would review to decide “what further oversight or legislative action is necessary.” Specter stopped short of calling for them to be publicly released, but said “there ought to be the maximum disclosure to the public, consistent with national security procedures.”
“They will not be made public until I’ve had a chance to see them,” Specter said.
But the administration still won’t release other crucial documents that explain how FISA Court’s orders comply with the 1978 surveillance law that the court oversees, said Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., a senior member of the House Intelligence Committee. She said the deal to release the documents stems from a briefing in front of that panel last week, which included Justice Department officials, and left many lawmakers frustrated.
“We are playing hide the ball down at the Justice Department,” said Wilson, who has told House Intelligence Chairman Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, that she will support a subpoena, if need be.
The documents are being turned over two weeks after a testy Senate hearing, during which lawmakers hammered Gonzales for refusing to provide details about the court’s new oversight — and whether it provides adequate privacy protections.
President Bush secretly authorized the spying program after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, allowing the National Security Agency to bypass court review and conduct domestic surveillance of people suspected of links to terrorism.
The program, which a federal judge last August declared unconstitutional, monitors phone calls and e-mails between the United States and other countries when such a link is suspected.
On Jan. 17, the day before the Senate hearing, Gonzales announced that the FISA Court had assumed oversight authority of the surveillance program a week earlier, and had already approved at least one warrant targeting a person suspected of having terror ties.
ACLU suing over program
Senators demanded to know more about how judges on the secret court might consider evidence when approving government requests to spy on people in the United States. And FISA Court Presiding Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, in a letter released at the hearing, said she had no objection to giving lawmakers copies of orders and opinions relating to the secret panel’s oversight of the spy program.
Gonzales’ remarks Wednesday came as the Justice Department asked a federal appeals court in Cincinnati to dismiss a civil lawsuit against the spy program. Government attorneys have said the American Civil Liberties Union’s lawsuit is moot since the surveillance now is monitored by a secret court.
The ACLU, however, is asking the appeals court to uphold the earlier decision in August, declaring the program unconstitutional, since Bush retains authority to continue warrantless surveillance.
Gonzales described the decision to release the documents to Leahy and Specter as the result of ongoing negotiations between Congress and the administration. He said lawmakers most likely will not have to review the documents at the Justice Department, which keeps a tight grip on classified information, but offered few other details.
“It’s important for us that they understand what we’re doing,” Gonzales said. “All they have to do is ask.”