WASHINGTON -- A Senate committee investigating the Bush administration's domestic eavesdropping program subpoenaed the White House, Vice President Dick Cheney's office and the Justice Department yesterday for information regarding their legal justification for the warrantless secret surveillance.
Separately, the Senate Judiciary Committee is summoning Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales to discuss the program and an array of other matters that have cost a half-dozen top Justice Department officials their jobs, said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, the Vermont Democrat who chairs the committee.
The subpoenas by the Judiciary Committee set the stage for another legal and political battle between Senate Democrats and the Bush administration over its counterterrorism and law enforcement policies. Earlier subpoenas issued by Democratic lawmakers to current and former White House officials have largely been ignored.
Legal experts suggested yesterday that the Bush administration would fight or ignore these subpoenas, too, throwing the issue into federal court. The ultimate outcome, they said, could be a compromise that gives lawmakers at least some insight into the legal machinations surrounding the secret National Security Agency program.
President Bush authorized the domestic surveillance program soon after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, allowing the NSA to monitor international phone calls and e-mail messages to or from the United States involving people that authorities suspected of having links to terrorists.
In letters accompanying the subpoenas, Leahy said the panel had made at least nine formal requests for such documentation from the White House and the Justice Department, but all were rebuffed.
Leahy said attempts to get senior Bush administration officials to testify before Congress on the legality of the eavesdropping issue "have been met with a consistent pattern of evasion and misdirection."
Leahy noted that the Judiciary Committee is not seeking operational details of the program, which remains highly classified. But he said the committee is charged with oversight of the executive branch in the areas of constitutional protections and the civil liberties of Americans.
"The warrantless electronic surveillance program directly impacts those responsibilities," Leahy wrote. "We cannot conduct this oversight without knowing the legal arguments the administration has used to justify interception of the communications of Americans without a warrant."
Leahy said he was issuing the subpoenas in consultation with the ranking Republican on the panel, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. Two other senior Republicans on the committee, Sens. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah and Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, voted with Democrats last week to give Leahy the power to issue the subpoenas.
Leahy gave those receiving the subpoenas until July 18 to comply.
White House spokesman Tony Fratto condemned the subpoenas as an act of political partisanship and did not say whether the administration would comply.
"We're aware of the committee's action and will respond appropriately," Fratto said. "It's unfortunate that congressional Democrats continue to choose the route of confrontation."
Fratto said the so-called terrorist surveillance program is "lawful, limited, safeguarded and - most importantly - effective in protecting American citizens from terrorist attacks. It's specifically designed to be effective without infringing on Americans' civil liberties."
After the existence of the surveillance program was disclosed in December 2005, Bush defended it as necessary in fighting a shadowy enemy. Bush contended that the program was legal, approved by some members of Congress, and that he had the authority to authorize the eavesdropping as commander in chief, using expanded war powers granted by Congress.
The White House said initially that the program did not require court approval, but that was challenged in court, and the Bush administration agreed this year to allow it to be subjected to review by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. The president still claims the power to order warrantless spying.
A Judiciary Committee staff member said the senators want documents that could shed light on internal deliberations and disputes within the Bush administration over the legality of the program, including who in the Justice Department expressed concerns about it, and when.
Former Deputy Attorney General James Comey testified last month before the Judiciary Committee that he, former Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III threatened to resign after the White House tried to override their objections to the program in 2004.
Josh Meyer writes for the Los Angeles Times.