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Democrats' subpoena bid fails

Senators sought documents on antitorture laws

WASHINGTON -- Republicans yesterday lined up to defeat an attempt by Senate Judiciary Committee Democrats to subpoena Justice Department memos on how torture conventions apply in the interrogation of terror suspects.

But Senator Orrin Hatch, a Republican of Utah and 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. Hatch said he had talked to White House counsel Alberto Gonzalez 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 antitorture 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.

Senator Patrick Leahy, of Vermont, the 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. Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein of California said Ashcroft, in his testimony, "essentially thumbed his nose at us."

Feinstein offered to change the subpoena 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.

The 16 Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee also sent a letter yesterday to committee chairman James Sensenbrenner, a Republican of Pennsylvania, urging him to formally request from the administration all memos, orders, and rules concerning international torture conventions and how they applied to detainees in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo Bay.

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 antitorture laws, including the Geneva Conventions, in certain circumstances.

Hatch said Democrats were trying to "score cheap political points." He also 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 coverup, not of cooperation," Leahy said.

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