Panel Grills Gonzales Over Spy Program

By Dan Eggen Washington Post Staff Writer Thursday, January 18, 2007; 1:48 PM

The chief judge of a secret intelligence court is willing to turn over to Congress copies of new orders that allow government surveillance of international communications, but Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales signaled that he was likely to block such an action.

U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, presiding judge of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, wrote in a letter late Wednesday to the leaders of the Senate Judiciary Committee that she had "no objection to this material being made available" to lawmakers.

But the judge said it was up to Gonzales's department to decide the matter since the documents include classified information.

Gonzales, during an appearance this morning in front of judiciary panel, suggested under questioning from Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) that he was unlikely to allow the court to provide senators with the documents.

"There is going to be information about operational details about how we're doing this that we want to keep confidential," he said.

The debate came one day after the Bush administration revealed that it had agreed to dismantle a controversial warrantless wiretapping program run by the National Security Agency, replacing it with a new initiative overseen by the secret Washington court that issues warrants in intelligence and terrorism cases.

The administration's surprise reversal came after more than a year of debate over the NSA's eavesdropping program, which allowed intelligence officers to monitor telephone calls and e-mails from the United States and overseas residents if the communications were believed to involve a member of al-Qaeda or affiliated group.

During today's hearing, Democrats who had been critical of the warrantless spying effort said they were heartened by the administration's change of course. But they also peppered Gonzales with criticism about the way the issue was handled and demanded more details about how the program will work.

Several senators also sharply questioned why it took nearly two years for the Justice Department to come up with a surveillance plan that was acceptable to the secret court.

"It is little hard to see why it took so long," said Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), the committee's ranking Republican and former chairman who had failed in an attempt to pass legislation last year that would have allowed the administration to seek approval for the spying from the intelligence court. "The heavy criticism the president took on the program was very harmful in the political process, and for the reputation of the country."

Gonzales generally declined to provide any further details about the spying effort, arguing that disclosing even the basic outlines of the program would reveal vital intelligence sources and methods to terrorist groups.

He also defended the amount of time that it took for Justice lawyers to devise a plan that would pass court muster.

"This is a very complicated application," Gonzales said. "It's not something you just pull off the shelf."