Friday, June 22, 2007

Ashcroft Talks To House Intelligence Committee About CATCH ALL

Former Attorney General John Ashcroft testified yesterday in front of the House Intelligence Committee about administration disputes over the extra-legal NSA warrantless surveillance program (CATCH ALL).

The administration was sharply divided over the legality of President George W. Bush's most controversial eavesdropping policies, a congressman quoted former Attorney General John Ashcroft as telling a House panel.

"It is very apparent to us that there was robust and enormous debate within the administration about the legal basis for the president's surveillance program," Intelligence Committee Chairman Silvestre Reyes told reporters after a closed-door meeting with Ashcroft on Thursday.

The point is critical to two matters being considered in the Democratic-controlled Congress: One is the House and Senate Intelligence committees' review of 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which includes an extensive examination of the president's warrantless eavesdropping program.

The other is the House and Senate Judiciary Committees' parallel examinations of current Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' service to the administration. Under that probe, former Deputy Attorney General James Comey revealed that Gonzales, then White House counsel, tried to pressure him and a critically ill Ashcroft to certify the legality of the wiretapping program, which involved listening in on phone calls and intercepting email.

Comey and Ashcroft, who was in intensive care during Gonzales' 2004 hospital visit, refused to comply.

Also Thursday, the Senate Judiciary Committee authorized — but did not issue — subpoenas to Gonzales and to the custodian of records at the Executive Office of the President for all administration documents on the legality of the program. The panel approved giving Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Democrat, authority to issue the subpoenas, 13-3, with Republican Sens. Arlen Specter, Orrin Hatch and Chuck Grassley voting with the Democrats.

The White House made no move to comply.

"It's important for Congress to understand that the information the committee is requesting is highly classified and not information we can make available," said Bush spokesman Tony Fratto. "Also important is for Congress to respect our need to ensure that internal executive branch deliberations are confidential.

Democrats have insisted that the hospital story appears to contradict Gonzales' congressional testimony that there had been no significant disagreement within the administration over the program. Gonzales has stood by his testimony.

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