Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Justice Official Opens Spying Inquiry

The New York Times
Justice Official Opens Spying Inquiry

WASHINGTON, Nov. 27 — After months of pressure from Congressional Democrats, the Justice Department’s inspector general said Monday that his office had opened a full review into the department’s role in President Bush’s domestic eavesdropping program and the legal requirements governing the program.

Democrats said they saw the investigation as a welcome step that could answer questions about the operations and legal underpinnings of the program, which allows the National Security Agency to monitor, without obtaining court warrants, the international communications of Americans and others inside this country with suspected terrorist ties.

“This is a long overdue investigation of a highly controversial program,” said Representative John Conyers Jr., the Michigan Democrat who will take over as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

Last December, more than three dozen Democrats called for the Justice Department inspector general, Glenn A. Fine, to open an investigation.

Mr. Fine declined at the time, saying a review of the program’s legality fell outside his jurisdiction. He referred the matter to another arm of the Justice Department, the Office of Professional Responsibility. That office sought to examine ethical issues surrounding the roles played by Justice Department lawyers in the eavesdropping program. But its review was blocked this year when Mr. Bush personally refused security clearances for its investigators.

Democrats have since renewed their calls for a full Justice Department investigation, accusing the Bush administration of stonewalling. On Monday, Mr. Fine informed members of Congress in a letter that he was opening an investigation after the White House had agreed to approve the necessary security clearances for members of his staff.

The review will have a somewhat different scope than the investigation sought and rejected last year. The review, Mr. Fine said in his letter, will examine the controls in place at the Justice Department for the eavesdropping, the way information developed from it was used, and the department’s “compliance with legal requirements governing the program.”

Officials said the investigation could examine the legal authority given to the Justice Department under a secret executive order first signed by Mr. Bush in October 2001, as well as the laws and procedures governing intelligence wiretaps under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which was approved by Congress in 1978 after the Watergate scandal and required a special court warrant for wiretaps on Americans. The review could also look at how intelligence generated by the eavesdropping was used to seek traditional court warrants and to pursue criminal cases, the officials said.

An official with the inspector general’s office, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the office’s position had not changed since it declined to review the program in January. “It was beyond our jurisdiction, and it still is beyond our jurisdiction, to review the legality or the constitutionality of the program, and that’s not what we’re doing here,” the official said.

Congressional Democrats said they were eager to see what areas the inspector general would decide to review. Mr. Fine has a reputation as a strong and independent watchdog within the Justice Department, and he has issued a number of highly critical reports about the department’s policies and practices since the terrorism attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Still, several Democrats suggested that the timing of his review might be tied to their takeover of Congress in this month’s midterm elections as a way to pre-empt expected Democratic investigations of the N.S.A. program.

“It’s hard to ignore the fact that there is a correlation in the timing,” said Representative Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat who helped lead the push for a Justice Department investigation.

“I don’t know why the White House would stonewall for a year, then within a month of the election, agree to these security clearances” for the inspector general’s staff, Ms. Lofgren said in an interview. “We don’t know what it means, but we’ll find out.”

Mr. Fine said in his letter to members of Congress that he decided to open his investigation after “conducting initial inquiries” into the eavesdropping operation. That initial inquiry was limited to Mr. Fine and two other supervisors in his office who had security clearance to review the program, but it will now be widened to include investigators and staff members, officials said.

The Justice Department said it welcomed the inspector general’s investigation. “We expect that this review will assist Justice Department personnel in ensuring that the department’s activities comply with the legal requirements that govern the operation of the program,” said Brian Roehrkasse, a department spokesman.

The administration has strongly defended the legality of the eavesdropping program, but a federal judge in Detroit ruled in August that the program was illegal and unconstitutional. The Bush administration is now appealing that decision.