National Security

A Justice Department inquiry into secret eavesdropping is on again

WASHINGTON — The Justice Department has reopened an inquiry into the Bush administration's domestic eavesdropping program after its investigators received security clearances that President Bush once blocked.

Tuesday's acknowledgement of the probe by the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility came days after retired federal judge Michael Mukasey was sworn in as attorney general.

H. Marshall Jarrett, counsel for the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility, announced that he was investigating Justice Department lawyers' roles in the "authorization and oversight" of the surveillance. Investigators also would determine whether department lawyers complied with laws that require court authorization for eavesdropping, Jarrett said in a letter to U.S. Representative Maurice Hinchey.

Hinchey, a New York Democrat who demanded a probe in January 2006, called the development "very positive."

"I'm encouraged by the way in which the attorney general's office is now beginning to operate," he said.

White House and Justice Department officials said they couldn't comment on the timing of the latest probe or on why investigators were granted security clearances that Bush had denied.

Shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the National Security Agency, which conducts high-tech spying, began wiretapping Americans' international phone calls, e-mails and other electronic communications without court authorization when at least one party was suspected of supporting or engaging in terrorist activities.

The disclosure of the program by The New York Times in 2005 provoked an outcry from civil liberties groups and members of Congress, including some Republicans. At the time, administration officials asserted that the president had the power to authorize eavesdropping without court oversight.

Beating a retreat last January, the Bush administration disclosed that it had obtained approval for its domestic surveillance program from a special national security court and no longer would resort to warrantless wiretaps. It's unclear whether the secret court has set up a special program that gives broad authority for wiretaps or requires the administration to seek individual warrants.

Hinchey called the Office of Professional Responsibility investigation "very important," although it won't be looking into larger questions of the program's constitutionality.

In a statement, Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said the latest inquiry would focus on whether lawyers "complied with their ethical obligations of providing competent legal advice to their client and of adhering to their duty of candor to the court." He declined to elaborate.

The Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility is the second agency to investigate the program. Justice Department Inspector General Glenn Fine announced a separate probe in November 2006, saying he'd look into whether the program complied with government procedures.

Fine's investigation is continuing, and Hinchey said he's been told it that will be completed by the end of this year or early next year. A spokeswoman for Fine said she couldn't comment.