Lawyers speaking on behalf of both President Bush and Cheney asked the Senate Judiciary Committee Monday for more time to respond to subpoenas involving a wiretapping program that Democrats in Congress have harshly questioned.
In a letter to committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, Cheney's counsel Shannen W. Coffin, reported that the vice president's office had identified more than 40 "Top Secret/Codeword Presidential Authorizations" and memoranda from the Justice Department that may respond to the subpoena.
Coffin wrote that "the issuance of the subpoena to this office was procedurally irregular," saying the Judiciary Committee was only authorized to issue subpoenas to the Executive Office of the President (EOP) and the Justice Department.
Leahy seemed miffed that Cheney's office did not acknowledge that they fell within the purview of the Committee's investigation. Of their claims that the Vice President's office is not part of the EOP, Leahy said, "That is wrong. Both the United States Code and even the White House's own Web site say so — at least it did as recently as this morning."
The documents cited in the letter spanned a time frame from Oct. 4, 2001 — not long after the Sept. 11 terror attacks — to Dec. 8, 2006.
"We continue our efforts to identify further documents that may be responsive to the subpoena and renew the request made in our letter of Aug. 10, 2007 for an extension of time," Coffin wrote.
Cheney's counsel, however, did not indicate whether the vice president's office was willing to hand the documents without a struggle. The letter did indicate that Cheney would follow the lead of the president if Mr. Bush decided to assert executive privilege in refusing to turn over documents.
Leahy threatened to hold key officials in contempt for not producing subpoenaed information about the legal justification for the eavesdropping program.
"When the Senate comes back in the session, I'll bring it up before the committee," the Vermont Democrat said. "I prefer cooperation to contempt. Right now, there's no question that they are in contempt of the valid order of the Congress."
Leahy's committee on June 27 subpoenaed the Justice Department, National Security Council and the offices of the president and vice president for documents relating to the National Security Agency's legal justification for the wiretapping program.
White House lawyer Fred Fielding, in a separate letter to Leahy, said the administration needed more time.
"A core set of highly sensitive national security and related documents we have so far identified are potentially subject to claims of executive privilege and that a more complete collection and review of all materials responsive to the subpoenas will require additional time," Fielding said.
Congress, before it left for its August recess, approved an update to the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, allowing the government to eavesdrop on terror suspects overseas without first getting a court warrant.
The overhaul was the result of a recent Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court ruling that banned eavesdropping on foreigners when their messages were routed though communications carriers based in the United States.
The provisions expire after six months, but the White House wants them made permanent.
"For Congress to legislate effectively in this area, it has to have full information about the executive branch's interpretations of FISA," Leahy said. "We cannot, and certainly, we should not legislate in the dark, where the administration hides behind a fictitious veil of secrecy."