WASHINGTON - Attorney General Alberto Gonzales expanded Congress' access yesterday to classified documents detailing the government's domestic spying program, but still didn't satisfy several lawmakers demanding information about surveillance.
Investigators' applications, legal briefs and orders issued by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act Court are now open to the leaders of the Senate Judiciary Committee and the House and Senate intelligence committees, Gonzales said.
Two weeks ago, the Senate Judiciary Committee - led by Democratic Chairman Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Republican Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania - criticized the attorney general for refusing to answer specific questions about the secret court's new oversight of the controversial program.
"We obviously would be concerned about the public disclosure that may jeopardize the national security of our country," Gonzales told reporters yesterday. "But we're working with the Congress to provide the information that it needs."
The documents would not be released publicly, the attorney general said. "We're talking about highly classified documents about highly classified activities of the United States government."
Leahy and Specter both said they welcomed the Bush administration's decision to show them the documents, which could give insight on how judges on the secret court consider evidence when approving government requests to spy on people in the United States who have suspected links to al-Qaeda.
But Leahy said he would decide after he reviewed the papers whether further oversight or legislative action was necessary. Specter stopped short of calling for them to be released publicly, but said "there ought to be the maximum disclosure to the public, consistent with national security procedures."
"They will not be made public until I've had a chance to see them," Specter said.
The documents also are available to lawmakers and staffers on the House and Senate intelligence committees, who were already cleared to receive details about the spy program. But several lawmakers accused the Justice Department of still holding back crucial classified documents about the surveillance, including the original presidential order that created it in October 2001.
"We have informed Justice Department officials that the committee's requests for those documents remains in effect," House Intelligence Chairman Silvestre Reyes (D., Texas) said in a statement. "We are hopeful that the administration will comply with those requests in a timely fashion and that further efforts to secure that material will not be necessary."
Congressional aides did not rule out the possibility of issuing a subpoena for those documents.
Justice spokeswoman Tasia Scolinos said the department and Bush administration intelligence officials have provided "numerous documents and many briefings" to help lawmakers oversee the spy program.
The continued demands for more information underscore Congress' suspicions of the spying program, which President Bush secretly authorized after the 2001 terror attacks without court review. It was not revealed until December 2005 and has been a sore point for many lawmakers from both parties, as well as civil libertarians who fear people's privacy rights are being violated.
The warrantless program, run by the National Security Agency, monitors phone calls and e-mails between the United States and other countries that are suspected to be linked to agents of al-Qaeda or affiliated terror groups. A federal judge in Detroit in August declared the program unconstitutional, and government lawyers were back in court yesterday asking a Cincinnati-based appeals panel to drop a civil lawsuit against it.
The Justice Department argued that the American Civil Liberties Union's lawsuit was moot since the surveillance now was monitored by the FISA court. But the ACLU is asking the appeals court to uphold the earlier decision in August, since Bush retains authority to continue warrantless surveillance.
Gonzales described the decision to release the documents to Leahy and Specter as the result of ongoing negotiations between Congress and the administration. He said lawmakers most likely would not have to review the documents at the Justice Department, which keeps a tight grip on classified information, but offered few other details.