Bush talks accountability, then refuses to turn over documents

The Justice Department is refusing to provide Congress with documents about its warrantless spying program.

Published February 2, 2006 1:46PM (EST)

In his State of the Union address Tuesday night, George W. Bush said that it's important for fledgling democracies to have "accountable institutions," for young people to live lives of "personal responsibility," and for public officials to "never forget, never dismiss and never betray" their "pledge to be worthy of public responsibility."

It was a lot of accountability talk for one speech. But two days later, it's looking like it was just that -- talk.

The Senate Judiciary Committee is about to begin hearings into the legality of the president's warrantless spying program. But as the New York Times reports, the Bush administration is refusing to turn over some of the documents committee members say they need to investigate the program properly.

Committee members want to see classified legal opinions on which the administration relied in launching the spying program. The Justice Department says it won't give them up because it has already released publicly its legal justifications for the program. Committee members want to examine the internal memos to see whether the public rationalizations match up with the private deliberations and whether Bush's lawyers recognized any limits on the president's power during a time of war.

A senior Justice Department official tells the Times that "everything that's in those memos" has already been disclosed in a white paper in which the White House set out its legal defense of the spying program. How do we know that's true? Without a check from Congress, we don't, just as, without a check from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, we don't know whether the Bush administration was really using the spying program in the "narrow" and "targeted" way it claims that it was.

Accountability is a wonderful thing, right up until that moment when you're the one being held to account.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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