WASHINGTON—Justice Department investigators have launched an inquiry to determine whether the Bush administration's use of the warrantless surveillance program has complied with government procedures.
Glenn Fine, the Justice Department's inspector general, said in a letter to congressional committee leaders Monday that his investigation would be limited to the department's use of information arising from the surveillance and "compliance with legal requirements."
The inquiry won't seek to address questions about the legality of the administration's decision to spy on U.S. residents without court approval.
Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., said a broader investigation was needed because Congress had been kept largely in the dark about the workings of the program and couldn't determine whether the administration's use of the program was legal. In January, Fine declined a request from Lofgren and other Democrats for a more sweeping probe, saying his office lacked jurisdiction.
"Congress needs to craft legislation so that terrorists can be the subject of surveillance while the Constitution of the United States is honored," Lofgren said. "To do that, a full investigation into the program as a whole, not just the (Justice Department's) involvement, will be necessary."
After turning down the request, Fine had referred it to the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility, which reviews allegations of wrongdoing by Justice Department employees. But the Office of Professional Responsibility was denied security clearances to conduct the investigation.
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales later revealed that President Bush had personally refused to grant the security clearances.
In his letter Monday, Fine said he already had a security clearance. He said he asked Gonzales on Oct. 20 for additional clearances for the internal inquiry. Last week, Fine received word that the White House had granted his request.
A spokeswoman for the Inspector General's office declined to comment on what had prompted the investigation.
Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y., said he was "skeptical about the timing."
"I wonder whether this reversal is only coming now after the election as an attempt to appease Democrats in Congress," he said.
The Bush administration authorized the eavesdropping program to monitor telephone and Internet communications in and out of the United States when officials have "reasonable grounds to believe" that one party is a member of al-Qaida or an affiliated terrorist organization.
In August, U.S. District Judge Anna Diggs Taylor in Detroit found the program violated the U.S. Constitution's provisions that enumerated separation of powers and the right to free speech and privacy. The Bush administration is appealing the ruling.
Administration officials said the program is subject to extensive oversight and is reviewed every 45 days. The administration kept the program under wraps until the New York Times revealed its existence in late 2005.
Last week, Gonzales defended the program.
"Common myths about the Terrorist Surveillance Program are that it is an invasion of privacy and an unlawful eavesdropping tool," Gonzales said. "I want to be very clear about the facts here: The Terrorist Surveillance Program does not invade anyone's privacy, unless you are talking to the enemy in this time of war."
Meanwhile, the Associated Press reported Monday that a government board, which Congress created and whose members Bush appointed, has been given details about the program.
Board members said they were impressed by the government's oversight of the program.
"If the American public, especially civil libertarians like myself, could be more informed about how careful the government is to protect our privacy while still protecting us from attacks, we'd be more reassured," said Lanny Davis, a board member and a former special counsel to President Clinton.