Senate Panel Squabbles Over Torture Docs

Republicans on Thursday lined up to defeat an attempt by Senate Judiciary Committee Democrats to subpoena Justice Department (search) memos on the use of torture in the interrogations of suspected terrorists.

But Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, chairman of the committee, and other Republicans said the administration must be more forthcoming on policies that could have contributed to prisoner abuse in Iraq (search). Hatch said he had talked to White House counsel Alberto Gonzalez (search) earlier in the day and been promised cooperation.

The Democratic subpoena attempt grew out of a hearing last week at which Attorney General John Ashcroft refused to give the committee copies of department memos on anti-torture laws that Democrats said could have laid the groundwork for the abuses at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison and elsewhere in the war on terrorism.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., top Democrat on the panel and sponsor of the subpoena, said he applauded President Bush's pledge to get to the bottom of the abuse scandal, but "you can't get to the bottom when the top stonewalls."

Democrats were particularly critical of Ashcroft, a former Senate colleague. Sen Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said Ashcroft, in his testimony, "essentially thumbed his nose at us."

Feinstein offered to change the subpoena (search) language to give Ashcroft until June 24 to provide some 23 documents, or advance reasons why they should not be released, before the subpoena would go into effect. But the subpoena proposal was still defeated on a party-line vote, 10-9.

One of the memos being sought, cited in a March 2003 Pentagon policy paper, stated that the president's broad wartime national security authority could override anti-torture laws, including the Geneva Conventions, in certain circumstances.

In an angry exchange, Hatch said Democrats were trying to "score cheap political points" and said voting on a subpoena was "a dumb-ass thing to do."

He said the subpoena was too broad and the White House would refuse to comply, resulting in drawn-out litigation.

Hatch added that, in addition to talking to Gonzalez, he had had discussions with Ashcroft who had asserted that he didn't have the authority to release the requested documents but would talk to the White House about providing them to the committee.

Democrats argued that without subpoena authority the administration would not voluntarily turn over incriminating or embarrassing documents. "Hiding these documents from view is the brazen sign of a cover-up, not of cooperation," Leahy said.

But Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., also a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he had talked Wednesday to Pentagon General Counsel William Haynes, recipient of several of the memos on Al Qaeda (search) and Taliban detainees, and been told the Defense Department would supply Armed Services with several of the sought-after memos.

Still, several Republicans left open the possibility of subpoenas at a later date if the administration didn't voluntarily come forth with the memos. Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said he agreed with Democrats that "no one has been as unartful as Attorney General Ashcroft" in denying documents to the committee.

He said that while he was voting against the Leahy proposal, he was "prepared to bite the bullet nonetheless (and support a subpoena) if we don't get a fair disclosure."