WASHINGTON, Nov. 23 — Seeking information about detention of terrorism suspects, abuse of detainees and government secrecy, Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee are reviving dozens of demands for classified documents that until now have been rebuffed or ignored by the Justice Department and other agencies.
“I expect real answers, or we’ll have testimony under oath until we get them,” Senator Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, who will head the committee beginning in January, said in an interview this week. “We’re entitled to know these answers, and in many instances we don’t get them because people are hiding their mistakes. And that’s no excuse.”
Mr. Leahy, who has said little about his plans for the committee, expressed hope for greater cooperation from the Bush administration, which he described as having been “obsessively secretive.” His aides have identified more than 65 requests he has made to the Justice Department or other agencies in recent years that have been rejected or permitted to languish without reply.
Now that they are about to control Congress, what he and other Democrats regard as a record of unresponsiveness has energized their renewal of longstanding requests for information about some of the administration’s most hidden and fiercely debated operations. In addition, other such requests by committee members deal with subjects like voter fraud, immigration and background inquiries on Supreme Court nominees.
With little more than two weeks gone since the elections that gave his party a majority in both houses, Mr. Leahy has already begun pressing the Justice Department for greater openness. In a letter last Friday, he asked Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales to release two documents whose existence the Central Intelligence Agency, in response to a suit by the American Civil Liberties Union, recently acknowledged for the first time. Although their details are not known, the documents appear to have provided a legal basis for the agency’s detention and harsh interrogation of high-level terrorism suspects.
One document is a directive, signed by President Bush shortly after the September 2001 attacks, that granted the C.I.A. authority to set up detention centers outside the United States and outlined allowable interrogation procedures.
The second is a memorandum, written by the Office of Legal Counsel at the Justice Department in 2002, that is thought to have given the C.I.A. specific legal advice about interrogation methods that would not violate a federal statute on torture.
With Democrats in control, it will be harder for executive branch agencies to sidestep requests for documents. Behind each request will be the possibility of Democrats’ voting to issue subpoenas that would compel documents or testimony, although Senate aides said they hoped to avoid conflict.
So far, few signs have emerged that the administration is preparing to be more responsive, even in the absence of a Republican majority’s protection. Mr. Bush has promised to work with Democrats, but there appears to be little change in the reluctance of the Justice Department’s officials to start opening its files to Mr. Leahy’s committee.
“The department will continue to work closely with the Congress as they exercise their oversight functions, and we will appropriately respond to all requests in the spirit of that longstanding relationship,” said a department spokesman, Brian Roehrkasse. “When making those decisions, it is vital to protect national security information, particularly when they relate to sensitive intelligence programs that are the subject of oversight by the Intelligence Committees. We also must give appropriate weight to the confidentiality of internal executive branch deliberations.”
C.I.A. lawyers have sought in the past to avoid any discussion of whether the agency has documents related to its detention and interrogation of leading members of Al Qaeda in secret prisons overseas. The lawyers have said national security would be endangered if the agency was forced to tell in any way of its involvement in such operations.
But in September, the president said 14 high-level terrorism suspects had been transferred from secret locations abroad to the detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. That effectively confirmed the existence of the prisons, as long reported.
The two documents requested by Mr. Leahy in his letter of last Friday are among what Congressional aides maintain are perhaps hundreds, crucial to shaping the government’s counterterrorism policies, that have never been released or publicly acknowledged.
Justice Department officials have long said they will resist efforts to require disclosure of classified documents that provide legal advice to other agencies. But in the interview this week, Mr. Leahy signaled that he expected the department to provide a fuller documentary history on issues like detention.
The senator’s letter to Mr. Gonzales requested “all directives, memoranda, and/or orders including any and all attachments to such documents, regarding C.I.A. interrogation methods or policies for the treatment of detainees.” It also sought an index of all documents related to Justice Department inquiries into detainee abuse by “U.S. military or civilian personnel in Guantánamo Bay, Abu Ghraib prison or elsewhere.”
It is not known whether the material sought would clarify the origin and evolution of policies on issues like national security wiretaps, detention and interrogation. But there are wide gaps in what is publicly known about these policies, who authorized them and what exactly has been authorized by administration directives and legal advisories.
“The American people,” Mr. Leahy’s letter said, “deserve to have detailed and accurate information about the role of the Bush administration in developing the interrogation policies and practices that have engendered such deep criticism around the world.”