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Subpoenas target administration's wiretapping program

The Senate Judiciary Committee wants the legal justification for the contentious antiterror effort.

By / June 28, 2007

Congress is taking its most aggressive measures to date to shed light on the legality of the Bush administration's warrantless wiretapping policy, one of its most controversial efforts in its battle against terrorism.

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The Senate Judiciary Committee subpoenaed the White House, Vice President Dick Cheney's office, the Justice Department, and the National Security Council (NSC) on Wednesday, giving the administration until July 18 to turn over documents relating to the surveillance program. Over the past 18 months, the administration has ignored at least nine requests for these documents, says Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont.

Senator Leahy said that the committee's attempts to gather information on the surveillance program have been met with a "consistent pattern of evasion and misdirection." The New York Times first exposed the program in December 2005 and now reports that this is the most assertive attempt to investigate it since the Democrats won control of Congress this year.

"It's unacceptable," Mr. Leahy said. "It is stonewalling of the worst kind."

The White House, the vice president's office and the Justice Department declined Wednesday to say how they would respond to the subpoenas.

"We're aware of the committee's action and will respond appropriately," said Tony Fratto, White House deputy press secretary.

"It's unfortunate that Congressional Democrats continue to choose the route of confrontation," Mr. Fratto added.

The Boston Globe reports, however, that the decision to issue subpoenas received substantial bipartisan support.

[O]nly three of the nine Republicans on the committee voted against authorizing the subpoenas, which were approved by a 13-to-3 vote. The committee, under both Republican and Democratic leadership, has been seeking information about the program and questioning its legality since The New York Times revealed its existence in December 2005.

Legal experts anticipate that the Bush administration will either "fight or ignore" the subpoenas, a choice that could take the issue to the Supreme Court, reports the Los Angeles Times. There also remains the possibility of an out-of-court settlement, in which lawmakers would receive at least some information about the legality of the wiretapping program.

Leahy noted that the Judiciary Committee was not seeking operational details of the program, which remains highly classified. But he said the committee was charged with oversight of the executive branch in the areas of constitutional protections and the civil liberties of Americans.

"The warrantless electronic surveillance program directly impacts those responsibilities," Leahy wrote. "We cannot conduct this oversight without knowing the legal arguments the Administration has used to justify interception of the communications of Americans without a warrant."

The surveillance program started shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, reports the BBC. It was created to enable the US government to monitor the overseas e-mail and telephone communications of those with suspected terrorist ties – a step that the administration said was essential to security. Several private telephone and Internet service companies allegedly supported the NSC throughout their wiretapping operations.

While the president says his wartime powers allowed him to authorise surveillance without the need for a warrant, critics say he violated Americans' civil liberties.

To carry out the program, the administration has suggested revisions for a 1978 law regarding electronic surveillance, reports Congressional Quarterly.