The Justice Department has begun an internal investigation into its handling of information gathered in the government’s domestic spying program. However, Democrats criticized the review as too narrow to determine whether the program violated federal law.
The inquiry by Glenn A. Fine, the department’s inspector general, will focus on the role of Justice prosecutors and agents in carrying out the warrantless surveillance program run by the National Security Agency.
Fine’s investigation is not expected to address whether the controversial program is an unconstitutional expansion of presidential power, as its critics and a federal judge in Detroit have charged.
"After conducting initial inquiries into the program, we have decided to open a program review that will examine the department’s controls and use of information related to the program," Fine wrote in a letter dated Monday to House Judiciary Committee leaders. The four-paragraph letter was obtained by The Associated Press.
Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said the agency welcomes the review: "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."
In January, Fine’s office rejected a request by more than three dozen Democrats to investigate the secret program, which monitors phone calls and e-mails between people in the U.S. and abroad when a link to terrorism is suspected.
Fine’s letter outlining his review was welcomed by congressional Democrats. At the same time, they said it falls short of examining issues at the heart of the debate — how the spying program evolved, and whether its creation violated any laws.
"A full investigation into the program as a whole, not just the DOJ’s involvement, will be necessary," said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif.
The review could include whether the spying program complies with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which requires judicial authorization for electronic surveillance and physical searches of people suspected of espionage or international terrorism on behalf of a foreign power. The Justice Department requests surveillance approval from the FISA court.
Democrats also questioned the timing of the review. Fine’s letter noted that his office asked the White House on Oct. 20 for additional security clearances that were approved just last week — following the Nov. 7 elections that gave Democrats control of Congress.
Noting Democrats’ renewed power to subpoena Bush administration officials next year, Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y., questioned that Fine’s investigation "is only coming now after the election as an attempt to appease Democrats" who have been critical of the NSA program.
The letter was sent to House Judiciary Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., and the panel’s top Democrat and incoming chairman, Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich. Sensenbrenner had no comment. Conyers called the review "a long overdue investigation of a highly controversial program."
The Justice Department has called the program a necessary tool in the fight against terrorism, and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is pushing congressional Republicans to authorize it by law before they cede power at the year’s end — a prospect with at best a slim shot of approval.
Former Reagan administration national security official Robert F. Turner, now associate director at the Center for National Security Law at the University of Virginia, said congressional demands for sensitive information about the program puts them at odds with long-standing presidential powers over the collection of foreign intelligence.
"It’s good that the executive branch, on its own, is making sure that someone’s not abusing this power," Turner said. "But when Congress usurps power vested in the president by the people through the Constitution, then it becomes the lawbreaker."
Countering, Caroline Fredrickson, the director of the ACLU’s office in Washington, urged Fine "to seek the hidden truth about this program. … No one, not even the president, is above the law."
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