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Congress, Bush poised for 1st friction

The administration has denied the new Senate judiciary chairman's request for two papers on detainee policies.

January 03, 2007|Richard B. Schmitt | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Setting up what could become the first showdown between the Bush administration and the new Democratic Congress, the Justice Department has refused to turn over two secret documents, describing the CIA's detention and interrogation policies for suspected terrorists, to the incoming chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), who asked for the documents in November, said Tuesday that the department's response suggested that President Bush's promise to work with the new Congress "may have been only political lip service."

Leahy has said he might use subpoenas to get the material.

"It is disappointing that the Department of Justice and the White House have squandered another opportunity to work cooperatively with Congress," he said Tuesday in a statement.

"The department's decision to brush off my request for information about the administration's troubling interrogation policies is not the constructive step toward bipartisanship that I had hoped for, given President Bush's promise to work with us."

The administration notified Leahy on Dec. 22 that it would not release a presidential directive signed by Bush authorizing the CIA to set up secret prisons overseas for suspected terrorists or a 2002 Justice Department legal memorandum outlining "aggressive interrogation techniques."

Leahy waited until the week that Democrats take control of Congress to release -- and denounce -- the response. The department's letter to Leahy was sent during Congress' holiday recess, when most lawmakers were out of town.

The exchange is an inauspicious start to what some lawmakers and administration officials had hoped would be a period of bipartisanship following the November election, in which Republicans lost control of both houses of Congress.

Democrats have pledged stepped-up oversight on a number of matters, including the conduct of the Iraq war, the National Security Agency's warrantless electronic surveillance of terrorist suspects in the United States, and the bungled response to Hurricane Katrina.

In a letter Tuesday to Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales, Leahy asked the Justice Department to reconsider its decision. He also told Gonzales he would "pursue this matter further" as part of an oversight hearing that the judiciary committee was planning for the department.

That warning indicates the depth of frustration among Democrats who believe the administration has withheld crucial information about its anti-terrorism efforts. In response to a question after a speech Dec. 13 at Georgetown University Law Center, Leahy signaled the possibility of using subpoenas to elicit information.

"I expect to get the answers. If I don't ... then I really think we should subpoena," he said. "If the president wants to claim executive authority, then let him do so, and then we can determine where we go from there."

In its Dec. 22 letter to Leahy, the Justice Department said the information he sought was classified and included confidential legal opinions that were privileged.

The department also said disclosing sensitive operational information, such as interrogation techniques, would help the enemy.

"Al Qaeda seeks information on our interrogation techniques -- their methods and their limits -- and trains its operatives to resist them," wrote James H. Clinger, acting assistant attorney general for legislative affairs. "We must avoid assisting their effort."

Clinger said the department had already briefed members of the Senate and House intelligence panels about aspects of the anti-terrorism programs, fulfilling its obligations under the law.

He added that the department remained open to discussing many of the legal issues regarding the war on terrorism with Leahy and other lawmakers. He forwarded Leahy a document detailing how the department was currently interpreting the federal anti-torture statute under which CIA personnel could be prosecuted for mistreating prisoners.

Leahy noted in his response Tuesday that the document was already public.

The disclosure of the CIA "black sites" in late 2005 triggered a congressional furor -- and a Justice Department leak investigation into a Washington Post report that broke the news. Reports of prisoner abuses in Iraq and Afghanistan have also prompted global outcry and raised questions about the moral authority of the United States worldwide.

Bush acknowledged the existence of the secret prisons in September when he transferred 14 "high-value" detainees held at the prisons -- including alleged Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed -- to the military detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, for possible trial.

Issuing a subpoena is considered a last resort for lawmakers looking to examine administration policies. Doing so can lead to lengthy legal battles and, in some cases, attempts by Congress to enforce the subpoena by withholding funds for administration projects or by refusing to confirm nominees to executive-branch or judicial posts.

rick.schmitt@latimes.com

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