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U.S. to give Congress records on spying

The attorney general's move halts a two-week confrontation between lawmakers and the Bush administration.

February 01, 2007|Richard A. Serrano | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — A two-week standoff over documents in the White House domestic spying program came to an end Wednesday when Atty. Gen. 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 the revised program. A key Senate panel, newly controlled by Democrats, demanded access to the records to gauge whether the administration was going too far or breaking any laws in tracking terrorism suspects.

The decision to share information with Congress was the latest concession by the administration, which had argued that it had the right to conduct its "war on terror" as it deemed necessary and that secrecy was 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 and not released 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.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) said his panel would 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 (R-Pa.), a moderate who is the ranking Republican on the panel, had joined the Democrats in demanding the records be turned over. At a feisty 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.

On Wednesday, 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 that would not violate privacy rules or jeopardize legitimate ongoing federal investigations.

"They will not be made public until I've had a chance to see them," he said. But "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.

Under the Terrorist Surveillance Program, the National Security Agency eavesdropped on telephone and e-mail conversations between people in the U.S. and abroad without first getting a warrant from the FISA court. The program was launched weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks and remained secret until it was exposed in the New York Times in late 2005, creating a public furor.

Now, with the Democrats controlling Capitol Hill, the spying program is likely to become the target of several congressional investigations into operations by the Bush White House.

For instance, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas) said Wednesday that his panel members also would read the material, and that he and Rep. Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, the ranking Republican, would have their own questions into "whether the program is effective at tracking terror suspects and whether the program adequately protects the liberties of the American people."

Gonzales said that the Justice Department would cooperate with both committees, and that he hoped the congressional leaders would realize how important the domestic spying program had become to national security.

"It's important for us that they understand what we're doing," the attorney general said. "All they have to do is ask."

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richard.serrano@latimes.com

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