The White House agreed yesterday to give Senate intelligence committee members and staff access to internal documents related to its domestic surveillance program in a bid to win Democratic lawmakers' support for the administration's version of an intelligence measure.
The move was meant in part to defuse a months-long clash between Congress and the Bush administration over access to legal memoranda and presidential decisions underpinning the Terrorist Surveillance Program, which allowed the government to eavesdrop without court warrants on communications between people in the United States and abroad when one of the parties is a terrorism-related suspect.
Some of the documents had been demanded by Senate Judiciary Committee members as a condition for considering the administration's nomination of former judge Michael B. Mukasey as the nation's 81st attorney general. Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), the committee's chairman, dropped that condition weeks ago but said yesterday that he still wants to see the documents.
Leahy told reporters after a meeting with Mukasey yesterday that he nonetheless expects Mukasey "to be confirmed" after a nomination hearing today, at which Mukasey is to be escorted into the room by Leahy and the committee's ranking Republican, Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.). Mukasey is to be formally introduced by Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.).
Schumer indicated after meeting separately with Mukasey yesterday that he expects the judge to promise to undertake a review of the department's legal justifications for the administration's counterterrorism policies, which are the subject of some of the documents made available to intelligence committee staff and members for review at the White House.
Mukasey has indicated that he strongly supports the administration's counterterrorism effort.
Committee member Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who also sits on the Judiciary panel, said however that when one of her staff members reviewed the documents, "he wasn't impressed." She added that she was unsure whether the documents the staff member saw were exactly what Leahy was seeking.
Sen. Christopher S. Bond (Mo.), the intelligence committee's ranking Republican, was more positive. "We're getting the information I think we need."
But House Democrats, who plan to vote today on a bill that would restrict domestic surveillance powers more tightly than the administration wants, complained yesterday that they should have been permitted the same access.
"Although even these materials are far short of the information that Congress has requested for more than a year on this crucial subject, we are extremely disappointed that the available information is being withheld from the House," Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) said in a letter yesterday to White House counsel Fred F. Fielding.
Besides trying to quiet congressional accusations of a coverup, the administration wants in particular to win support for a legal provision providing immunity for telecommunications companies that have been sued for violating privacy rights when they assisted the government's domestic surveillance effort.
White House spokesman Tony Fratto said that administration officials "routinely meet with members of Congress and their staffs to provide them with information they need when they are considering and drafting legislation." In this case, he said, members of the Senate intelligence panel "requested access to certain materials to assist their consideration" of relief for the companies.
In addition to seeking documents related to the surveillance program, Leahy has sought internal legal opinions related to torture issues involving terrorism suspects and testimony from White House advisers connected to the firing of nine U.S. attorneys last year.
Leahy said his questioning at the hearing today will be aimed at eliciting statements from Mukasey about the legality of torturing terrorism suspects and threats to the independence of federal prosecutors that impinge on their efforts to pursue cases regardless of political sensitivities. "How are you going to clean up this mess?" Leahy said he probably will ask Mukasey.
Mukasey has already sought to assure lawmakers in private that he will not let politics intrude on the department's decisions. "He will be light-years better than his predecessor," Leahy said, referring to former attorney general Alberto R. Gonzales, who resigned in late August after making a series of statements about the attorney firings and surveillance programs that were disputed by his former colleagues and lawmakers from both parties.