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Leahy: 'Time is up' for White House to produce surveillance opinions

  • Story Highlights
  • White House not ready to turn over documents regarding surveillance program
  • Sen. Patrick Leahy: "We've waited long enough"
  • White House says no-warrant program is critical to preventing terrorist attacks
  • Leahy wants legal justification for program
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The White House asked for more time to produce documents regarding the legality of the Bush administration's no-warrant surveillance program Monday, but the chairman of the Senate committee that demanded them said "time is up."

Sen. Patrick Leahy says the White House has had enough time to turn over the requested documents.

The Senate Judiciary Committee has given White House officials more than a month to turn over the documents and has already granted extensions for the subpoena, Sen. Patrick Leahy said.

That delay "goes way beyond what anyone expected," he said.

"Time is up," Leahy, D-Vermont, told reporters. "We've waited long enough."

In late June, Leahy's committee voted 13-3 to subpoena legal opinions from the White House, National Security Council and Justice Department regarding the legality of the controversial no-warrant surveillance program. The Bush administration said the program is critical to preventing terrorist attacks on the United States.

Leahy said that unless the administration complies with the subpoena, "The full Judiciary Committee will have to sit down and determine whether to seek contempt from the full Senate." He added, "Right now there's no question they're in contempt of a valid order of the Congress."

Leahy already had agreed to extend the deadline for those documents until Monday. But last week, White House counsel Fred Fielding proposed additional talks after Labor Day on what the White House would be willing to turn over.

"Your subpoenas call for the production of extraordinarily sensitive national security information implicating core executive branch prerogatives," Fielding wrote. "Accordingly, much of this information, if not all, is potentially subject to a claim of executive privilege."

Meanwhile, Vice President Dick Cheney's office told Leahy on Monday that the subpoena the committee sent was "procedurally irregular" and said it would reserve the right to claim executive privilege as well.

Cheney's office also questioned whether a subpoena sent to the president's office applied to the vice president. Leahy mocked that contention, telling reporters that the vice president should check his own Web site.

"Even their own Web site, this morning, at least, says that the vice president is part of the Executive Office of the President," he said.

But both sides said they are seeking accommodation, not confrontation.

The committee wanted the White House to turn over the records July 18. Fielding and White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten originally asked for an extension until August 1, and Leahy said he gave them until Monday.

The White House contends it never said senators could have the documents by then.

The surveillance program was launched after the September 11, 2001, al Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington. President Bush authorized the National Security Agency to intercept electronic communications between people in the United States and people overseas who were suspected of having connections to the terrorist network, without seeking the approval of the federal court set up to hear wiretap requests in intelligence cases.

The program was kept secret from all but a handful of lawmakers until its existence was disclosed in 2005. Critics -- including the committee's ranking Republican, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania -- say it violates the Watergate-era federal law that requires a federal judge to approve electronic surveillance.

Leahy said he is not seeking operational details of the program, just the administration's legal justification "for its contention that it can operate outside the law."

Former Deputy Attorney General James Comey fueled new debate over the program earlier this year, when he testified that White House officials tried to pressure then-Attorney General John Ashcroft to reauthorize the surveillance while Ashcroft recovered from gall-bladder surgery in 2004.

His testimony led to allegations that Ashcroft's successor, Alberto Gonzales -- one of the officials who made that trip to Ashcroft's bedside -- had misled Congress when he told lawmakers there was no serious dispute over the legality of the program.

Gonzales has denied those allegations, telling lawmakers the dispute was over other intelligence-gathering activities. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

CNN Congressional Correspondent Jessica Yellin contributed to this report.

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