White House, Senate Republicans block spy probe

The House will investigate -- maybe, sort of.

Published February 17, 2006 2:02PM (EST)

The Bush administration has been working overtime to prevent further investigation of or disclosures about its warrantless spying program. Its efforts are bearing mixed results.

The White House won a major victory Thursday in the Senate, where Republicans managed to table a full investigation into the spying program. Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Pat Roberts said Republicans had put the investigation on hold because the White House had entered into an agreement to provide more briefings and to work to modify the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. But the White House was simultaneously insisting that it doesn't need any changes to FISA, and even Roberts' office conceded that the agreement of which he had spoken wasn't much of one at all. "There's nothing specific," said Roberts spokeswoman Sarah Ross. "The White House has ... committed to work with Congress on an expanded role in oversight and some sort of legislative solution. But there is nothing particular or specific beyond that."

The White House also seemed to be succeeding in stalling if not killing a Senate Judiciary Committee investigation into the spying program. When Attorney General Alberto Gonzales testified before the committee on the program, he said that he was willing to have former Attorney General John Ashcroft and former Deputy Attorney General James Comey testify before the committee as well, subject to claims of executive privilege and the like. But in a letter to Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Arlen Specter, the Justice Department said this week that it did not "believe that Messrs. Ashcroft and Comey would be in a position to provide any new information" to the committee. Without testimony from Ashcroft and Comey -- both of whom are believed to have raised questions about the program in the past -- the Judiciary Committee may find it difficult to proceed with a meaningful investigation, even if Republicans commit to pursuing one.

The administration is having less success in the House of Representatives, where leaders of the House Intelligence Committee said they had reached an agreement to begin an investigation. But as soon as that agreement was announced, House Republicans differed over what it actually means. Rep. Heather Wilson, a veteran who leads the subcommittee that oversees technological intelligence work, said the investigation "will have multiple avenues, because we want to completely understand the program and move forward." But as the New York Times reports, an aide for House Intelligence Committee chairman Peter Hoekstra said the investigation will be limited to considering the need for changes to current law and will not deal with the details of the warrantless spying program itself.

Whatever Congress does, it appears that some of those details may soon be available to the public: Federal District Judge Henry Kennedy ruled Thursday that the Bush administration must turn over documents relating to the program that the Electronic Privacy Information Center has requested under the Freedom of Information Act. Kennedy said that in trying to excuse its delays in producing such documents, the Justice Department was advocating an "absurd" position that would have allowed the executive branch to unilaterally exceed the 20-day deadline Congress has imposed for responding to FOIA requests.

By Tim Grieve

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

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