A senate committee's decision to issue subpoenas over the Bush administration's warrantless domestic surveillance program has set the stage...

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WASHINGTON — A Senate committee’s decision to issue subpoenas over the Bush administration’s warrantless domestic surveillance program has set the stage for the biggest legal and political battle between Senate Democrats and the White House over its counterterrorism and law-enforcement policies.

The Senate Judiciary Committee subpoenaed the White House, Vice President Dick Cheney’s office and the Justice Department, demanding copies of internal documents about the eavesdropping program’s legality and agreements with telecommunications companies that participated.

Separately, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales was summoned to discuss the program and an array of other matters that have cost a half-dozen top Justice Department officials their jobs, committee chairman Patrick Leahy announced.

Earlier subpoenas from the committee to current and former White House officials essentially have been ignored.

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Legal experts suggested Wednesday that the administration would fight or ignore these subpoenas, too, throwing the issue into federal court, perhaps even the Supreme Court. The ultimate outcome, they said, could be an out-of-court compromise that gives lawmakers at least some insight into legal machinations surrounding the program.

President Bush authorized the domestic surveillance program soon after the Sept. 11 attacks, allowing the National Security Agency (NSA) to monitor international phone calls and e-mails to or from the United States. The administration has said the program only involves people whom authorities suspect of having links to terrorists.

In letters accompanying the subpoenas, Leahy said the panel had made at least nine formal requests for such documentation from the White House and the Justice Department, but all were rebuffed. Moreover, the Vermont Democrat said, attempts to persuade senior administration officials to testify before Congress on the legality of the eavesdropping issue “have been met with a consistent pattern of evasion and misdirection.”

Leahy said he was acting in consultation with the panel’s ranking Republican, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. Two other senior Republicans, former chairman Orrin Hatch of Utah and Charles Grassley of Iowa, also voted with Democrats last week to give Leahy the power to issue the subpoenas.

Leahy gave those receiving the subpoenas until July 18 to comply.

The White House offered no word on whether it will turn over the documents. “We’re aware of the committee’s action, and will respond appropriately,” White House spokesman Tony Fratto said. “It’s unfortunate that congressional Democrats continue to choose the route of confrontation.”

Fratto said the so-called terrorist surveillance program is “lawful, limited, safeguarded and — most importantly — effective in protecting American citizens from terrorist attacks. It’s specifically designed to be effective without infringing Americans’ civil liberties.”

After the existence of the program was disclosed in December 2005, Bush defended it as necessary to fight a terrorist enemy with expertise in shrouding its plotting and its communications in secrecy. Bush also contended the program was legal, approved by at least some members of Congress, and that he had authority to authorize the eavesdropping as commander-in-chief, using expanded war powers granted to him by Congress.

The White House initially claimed that the program did not require court approval, but that was challenged in court, and the administration agreed this year to allow it to be subjected to review by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance court. The president, however, still claims the power to order warrantless spying.

Congressional interest in the program was stoked last month when former Deputy Attorney General James Comey testified that he, former Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller threatened to resign after the White House tried to override their objections to the program in 2004.

Comey said that effort included a nighttime visit by Gonzales, then White House counsel, and White House chief of staff Andrew Card to the hospital bed of an ailing Ashcroft to persuade him to recertify the program. Ashcroft refused, and Bush ultimately made changes demanded by the senior Justice Department officials.

No one involved has commented publicly on what those changes were and what kind of domestic spying had been going on previously.

“After we learned from Jim Comey about the late-night hospital visit to John Ashcroft’s bedside, it was even more imperative that we find out the who, what, how and why surrounding the wiretapping of Americans without warrants,” said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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