The Justice Department revealed Tuesday that it has reopened an internal investigation into whether department lawyers acted unethically or broke any laws in connection with the government's warrantless electronic surveillance of terrorism suspects.
The internal probe was suspended last year after President Bush refused to grant security clearances so that investigators could interview Justice officials and others about the National Security Agency program. White House officials said at the time that Bush viewed such clearances as a security risk because they would widen the circle of individuals familiar with the highly classified program.
That reasoning was questioned in some quarters because other department lawyers had been briefed and because the investigating unit, the Office of Professional Responsibility, had never been denied such a clearance in the past.
White House spokesman Tony Fratto said the White House would have no comment because the matter involved an ongoing investigation.
The about-face came less than a week after Michael B. Mukasey took over leadership of the Justice Department in the wake of Alberto R. Gonzales' resignation. Mukasey, who officially took the oath of office last week, is to be ceremonially sworn in as attorney general today by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., with Bush in attendance. The administration hopes that his arrival will mark a fresh start after the troubled and politically charged tenure of Gonzales.
Democrats had pressed for the inquiry starting in January 2006, shortly after the NSA program was disclosed in news reports. The surveillance program raised concern because its architects had bypassed a federal court that normally issues warrants in foreign-intelligence investigations.
Bush has contended that he had the power to order the surveillance, which involved monitoring international e-mail and phone calls passing through the United States. The role of Justice Department employees in approving the program has been unclear, although some officials have said that they expressed doubts about its legality.
Gonzales was Bush's White House counsel when the program was launched. The Justice Department has said that after Gonzales became attorney general, he recommended to Bush that department lawyers be cleared to conduct the internal investigation.
H. Marshall Jarrett, the counsel in charge of the professional responsibility office, disclosed the revived investigation on Tuesday in a one-paragraph letter to Congress.
"We recently received the necessary clearances and are now able to proceed with our investigation," Jarrett wrote.
A department spokesman, Brian Roehrkasse, said the investigation would focus on whether department lawyers involved in the program "complied with their ethical obligations of providing competent legal advice to their client and of adhering to their duty of candor to the court."
"I think this is going to be very revealing," said Rep. Maurice D. Hinchey (D-N.Y.), one of 40 lawmakers who had sought the original probe. "I don't think there are any security risks involved here. The risk is the basic principle of the Constitution, which protects the people of this country from intrusions by the government. This is a government that aspires to be despotic and do whatever they want."Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times