Senator threatens to charge White House with contempt
The International Herald Tribune
By Eric Lichtblau August 21, 2007

WASHINGTON: A leading Democrat threatened on Monday to pursue contempt charges against the White House next month over its response to a subpoena for internal documents on the National Security Agency's domestic surveillance program.

"Time is up," said Senator Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. "We've waited long enough."

Leahy's comments ratcheted up the battle between congressional Democrats and the White House over access to secret documents on the legal underpinnings of the eavesdropping program, which authorized the NSA to listen in without a court warrant on Americans' international communications.

Nearly two months ago, the Senate voted to subpoena the White House and the Bush administration for access to the documents as part of its investigation into the program.

The White House, in a letter to Leahy on Monday, said it had identified a number of classified documents that appeared to fall under the subpoena but it said the documents could be covered by a claim of executive privilege. The White House asked for more time to research the issue.

"It remains our goal to avoid a conflict between the branches on this important issue of national security," the White House counsel, Fred Fielding, said in the letter.

But Leahy made clear that his patience was running out. With Congress on its August break, he returned to Washington and held a news conference announcing that the White House had failed to meet the Monday deadline he had set for complying with the subpoena.

"Follow the law, and don't act like you're above the law," Leahy told reporters in remarks aimed at the White House. "Go ahead and answer the subpoena."

Leahy said that when the Senate returns to session next month, he would bring up what he called the White House's "dilatory unresponsiveness" with the Judiciary Committee in order to decide whether to bring contempt charges against the administration. "I prefer cooperation to contempt, but right now, there's no question they're in contempt of a valid order of the Congress," Leahy said.

If he makes good on the threat, the most likely route would be consideration of possible criminal contempt charges, rather than a civil charge, over what Democrats characterize as the Bush administration's refusal to comply with the Senate subpoena.

The Judiciary Committee would first have to approve such a measure. It would then go to the full Senate, where — under complex rules — Democrats would have to lure some Republicans to break a possible filibuster. If a contempt charge were approved by the full Senate, it would then most likely be referred to the United States attorney's office in the District of Columbia for possible criminal proceedings.

The road to contempt charges is legally and politically perilous, however. Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the leading Republican on the Judiciary Committee, has favored trying to negotiate an agreement with the White House rather than risk having the matter tied up in the courts through the end of the Bush administration.

Leahy said the Senate needed access to the documents on the legal foundations of the NSA program in part so it could effectively analyze what changes in surveillance law might be needed. Congress passed a hurried six-month revision to the law this month, but Democrats have promised to revisit the issue upon their return in September because they say the law gives the administration too much power to eavesdrop on Americans' communications.

Some administration officials suggested that Leahy's remarks were merely a negotiating ploy.

"Senator Leahy regularly uses hyperbole in his reactions to these things," Tony Fratto, a White House spokesman, said in an interview.

"We'd hope the conversations that occur with the White House counsel are more constructive," Fratto said, "and we hope that Senator Leahy will accept the notion that there is time to work this out in a spirit of cooperation."

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