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Justice Official Begins Inquiry On Domestic Spying Campaign

By Eric Lichtblau
THE NEW YORK TIMES


WASHINGTON

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 getting 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 Rep. John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., who will take over next month 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.

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 wiretapping program, but its review was blocked earlier this year when 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, 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, Fine said in his letter, will examine the controls in place at the Justice Department for the wiretapping, the way information developed from the wiretapping 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 Bush in October 2001, as well as the laws and procedures governing intelligence wiretaps under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.