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Lawmakers chide Bush administration for secrecy in wide range of cases

Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) – Lawmakers challenged the Bush administration's refusal to share documents in a wide range of cases Wednesday, from the FBI's handling of Boston mob informants in the 1960s to the Justice Department's failure to notify an Associated Press reporter before subpoenaing his home telephone records.

"When I get a majority in the House, I'm going to take you guys to court" to get the Boston records, Government Reform Committee Chairman Dan Burton, R-Ind., told Daniel J. Bryant, an assistant attorney general testifying before the committee.

"You're going to give me those documents," Burton said. It would take a vote by the full House, controlled by Republicans, to find President Bush in contempt to start a court battle.

Should Burton move for such a finding, "You have the votes," Rep. William Delahunt, D-Mass., a Judiciary Committee member, told him during the hearing.

Burton has focused on revelations that Joseph Salvati of Boston spent 30 years in prison for a murder he did not commit even though the FBI had evidence of his innocence. Other lawmakers said the withholding of documents in that case points to a larger pattern of administration secrecy.

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, testified that Justice officials won't answer whether they broke their own rules in subpoenaing the home telephone records of AP reporter John Solomon. They first said the case was ongoing, and later cited privacy and grand jury secrecy rules, Grassley said.

"The department has responded with a shell game," Grassley said. "It is inconceivable to me that the law is such that Congress cannot look at the record to determine whether the Justice Department did or did not follow its own guidelines regarding the subpoena of a reporter's phone records."

Solomon disclosed in a May 4 story that an FBI wiretap in an organized crime investigation had intercepted a conversation in which Sen. Robert Torricelli, D-N.J., discussed campaign donations. After the AP story ran, the Justice Department began a criminal investigation to find out who leaked the information about the wiretap.

Federal prosecutors notified Solomon in an Aug. 20 letter that his phone records had been subpoenaed for the period May 2 to May 7. Grassley asked Justice last fall to identify who decided on the three-month delay in notifying Solomon.

Rep. Henry Waxman of California, the committee's top Democrat, cited the administration's refusal to release energy policy task force records, adjusted data from the 2000 Census and 60,000 pages of records from the Reagan administration. An executive order issued Nov. 1 by President Bush curtailed access to presidential records.

Burton is trying to build a case that previous administrations have regularly turned over the kinds of prosecutorial documents that Bush ordered Attorney General John Ashcroft to withhold from the committee in December, citing executive privilege.

He has compiled a list of instances where Congress has gotten such records dating back to the 1920s.

"If we can't see the Boston documents, then isn't it fair for us to conclude ... (Congress) will never get deliberative documents from the Justice Department? Unfortunately, I'm beginning to come to that conclusion," he said.

Executive privilege is a doctrine recognized by the courts that ensures presidents can get candid advice in private without fear it will become public.

The Constitution doesn't mention it; its meaning has been defined over the years by presidents, judges and government policies. Since George Washington, presidents have used a form of privilege to keep information from Congress or the courts.

Bush argued that releasing records could have a chilling effect on prosecutors' willingness to give candid advice about criminal matters.

If the Bush administration wins a precedent for secrecy, Congress' authority to oversee future administrations will be severely weakened, Burton said. In the Boston matter, there may be more innocent people still in jail because of "rogue FBI agents," he said.

Salvati's conviction was overturned after a judge concluded that FBI agents hid testimony that would have cleared Salvati because they wanted to protect an informant. Salvati had been paroled in 1997.

Bryant, who spoke only to the Boston case, said Justice officials are willing to meet with lawmakers to evaluate records individually. But he would not promise access to documents.


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