WASHINGTON – Former Attorney General John Ashcroft confirmed the Bush administration was sharply divided over the legality of President Bush's most controversial eavesdropping work, the chairman of a congressional panel said Thursday.
"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," House Intelligence Committee Chairman Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, told reporters after a closed-door meeting with Ashcroft.
The point is critical to two matters being considered in the Democratic-controlled Congress: one is the House and Senate Intelligence committees' ongoing 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's 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.
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, D-Vt., authority to issue the subpoenas, 13-3, with Republican Sens. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, Orrin Hatch of Utah and Chuck Grassley of Iowa voting with the Democrats.
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.
In his first public comments on the subject, Ashcroft told reporters he was pleased to cooperate and "to signal that I want to do everything I can to make sure that the framework we have for defeating terror, defending the liberty and security of the United States in the context of our Constitution, that that capacity remains intact and is functioning properly." He refused to take questions.