White House, Senate headed for subpoena showdown
The Bush Administration and a Senate committee have entered an apparent standoff as the White House failed to meet a 2:30 p.m. deadline from the Senate Judiciary Committee, which seeks compliance with subpoenas related to President Bush's warrantless wiretapping program. The committee's chairman threatened criminal charges if the administration continues to withhold requested documents.
"We should not have to legislate in the dark when the administration hides behind a fictitious veil of secrecy," Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy said at a Capitol Hill press conference Monday afternoon.
The Vermont Senator said he'll begin contempt proceedings in the Judiciary Committee if the Bush administration does not comply with the subpoenas by the end of the current congressional recess. A majority of Judiciary Committee members would have to endorse the decision to begin criminal proceedings before the full Senate could consider pursuing prosecution.
"The time is up," Leahy told a few dozen reporters in the Judiciary Committee's hearing room. "We've waited long enough."
However, the White House has been granted a de facto extension for compliance because contempt hearings could not begin until Congress reconvenes after Labor Day. Leahy did not specify which administration officials could face charges.
Leahy said he hoped the White House and committee would be able to avoid criminal charges by working out an agreement over access to the requested documents, but he criticized the administration's unwillingness to negotiate or lay out reasonable accommodations in the past.
"The only accommodations we tend to get from the White House is, 'Do it our way and we'll be happy,'" Leahy said.
Leahy also said he had received a letter Monday from the Office of the Vice President indicating that Vice President Dick Cheney is not part of the Executive Office of the President. Because of that, Cheney's lawyer Shannen W. Coffin wrote, he is not required to respond to subpoenas targeting him that were sent to the President's office and Department of Justice.
"That is wrong," Leahy said, explaining that the subpoenas were clearly crafted to include the vice president.
Senator Leahy imposed the Monday deadline for his demand of legal justifications for the National Security Agency's surveillance of Americans without court approval. On Friday, White House counsel Fred Fielding told the committee he would not be producing the requested documents in time.
By withholding the documents, the White House has handicapped Congress' ability to oversee the spying program and has delayed a permanent overhaul of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which regulates such activity, Democrats say. Just before a monthlong recess, the House and Senate approved a temporary overhaul that dramatically expanded the NSA's ability to eavesdrop in on Americans' phone calls and e-mails abroad.
The temporary expansion, which Leahy opposed, expires in six months, and Leahy said he would continue to fight against a FISA overhaul unless the administration complies with the subpoena.
"I made my position clear by not voting for it," Leahy said in response to a question from RAW STORY, but he would not predict what the Democrats as a whole would do.
In a letter to President Bush earlier this month, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) urged the White House to comply with the subpoenas and other requests for information.
"Prompt action on these requests and full access to this information is critical as the Congress considers modifications to FISA that will ensure effective intelligence gathering in a manner that protects national security and is consistent with fundamental American freedoms," the Congressional leaders wrote.
In a separate letter to Leahy and Intelligence Committee Chairman John D. Rockefeller (D-WV), Reid deferred to the chairmen on specifics of a permanent FISA update but said he would like to see a bill come before the Senate "as soon as possible."
The House Judiciary Committee authorized contempt of Congress charges against White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolton and former-counsel Harriet Miers last month when they failed to comply with subpoenas demanding testimony about the administration's decision to fire nine US Attorneys last year.
It's been nearly two months since Leahy first subpoenaed the wiretapping documents on June 27th. And more than a month has passed since the White House missed its first compliance deadline of July 18.
Leahy had agreed to extend the initial deadline if the White House would produce the documents by the beginning of this month. Nearly three weeks later, the White House continues to withhold the documents.
In his Friday letter, Fielding asked Leahy to grant the White House another extension until after Labor Day. The White House lawyer said the request called for the production of "extraordinarily sensitive national security information," and warned much of the information could be kept secret because of executive privilege.