WASHINGTON (CNN) - Former Attorney General John Ashcroft deflected questions from reporters about the visit White House officials paid to his hospital room in 2004 urging him to reverse a Justice Department opinion that a government wiretapping program was illegal, but he apparently discussed the visit during a closed door hearing Thursday of the House Intelligence Committee.
"It is very apparent to us there was robust and enormous debate within the administration about the legal basis for the president's surveillance program. These people deserve credit for standing on their principles in that debate and taking their duties seriously," Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, chairman of the panel, told reporters after the hearing.
Concerning the debate over whether the National Security Agency's program for intercepting terrorist communications was legal, "I think that is something that has been well documented," Reyes said. "That's why we're conducting closed hearings so that we can get into the real details of ... what that ... dialogue was about."
Ashcroft and committee members refused to discuss specifically what was said in the hearing.
"It was my pleasure to cooperate with the committee today and to signal that I want to do everything I can to make sure that the framework that we have for defeating terror, defending the liberties and securities of the United States in the context of our Constitution, that capacity remains intact and is functioning properly," Ashcroft told reporters after his testimony.
Ashcroft's appearance before the committee is part of its examination of whether the law governing surveillance for national security investigations needs to be updated, as the Bush administration has proposed.
Ashcroft's former deputy, James Comey, last month publicly detailed how then White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card and then White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales came to see Ashcroft in March 2004 while Ashcroft was in intensive care.
Comey testified the officials were trying to get Ashcroft to reverse a Justice Department opinion that the NSA's warrantless wiretapping program, which allowed communications of suspected terrorists to be monitored without a court order, was not legal. Ashcroft instead rebuffed the officials' attempt, Comey said. Later after several Justice Department officials threatened to resign, President Bush authorized some changes to the program that satisfied department concerns, Comey told the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Since Comey's testimony, members of Congress have been pressing the administration for more information about the wiretap program and the legal justification and authorization, but so far the administration has not produced requested documents. On Thursday the Senate Judiciary Committee authorized but did not issue subpoenas to the Justice Department and the White House for the requested documents.
"This Administration has rebuffed all requests," Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in a statement. "We have still received no documents and no explanation. This stonewalling is unacceptable and it must end. If the Administration will not carry out its responsibility to provide information to this Committee without a subpoena, we will issue one."
The House and Senate Judiciary Committees already have subpoenaed the White House for testimony and documents concerning the firing of the eight U.S. attorneys last year.
- CNN Senior Justice Producer Kevin Bohn