Justice Dept. opens probe on domestic spying leak

    The Justice Department has opened another investigation into leaks
    of classified information, this time to determine who divulged the
    existence of President Bush’s secret domestic spying program.

    inquiry focuses on disclosures to The New York Times about warrantless
    surveillance conducted by the National Security Agency since the Sept.
    11 terrorist attacks, officials said.

    The newspaper recently
    revealed the existence of the program in a front-page story that also
    acknowledged that the news had been withheld from publication for a
    year, partly at the request of the administration and partly because
    the newspaper wanted more time to confirm various aspects of the

    White House spokesman Trent Duffy said Justice undertook the action on its own, and Bush was informed of it Friday.

    leaking of classified information is a serious issue. The fact is that
    al-Qaida’s playbook is not printed on Page One and when America’s is,
    it has serious ramifications,” Duffy told reporters in Crawford, Texas,
    where Bush was spending the holidays.

    Catherine Mathis, a spokeswoman for the Times, declined to comment.

    of the secret spying program two weeks ago unleashed a firestorm of
    criticism of the administration. Some critics accused the president of
    breaking the law by authorizing intercepts of conversations _ without
    prior court approval or oversight _ of people inside the United States
    and abroad who had suspected ties to al-Qaida or its affiliates.

    who publicly acknowledged the program’s existence and described how it
    operates, has argued that the initiative is legal in a time of war.

    inquiry launched Friday is only the most recent effort by the Bush
    administration to determine who is disclosing information to

    Two years ago, a special counsel was named to
    investigate who inside the White House gave reporters the identity of
    CIA operative Valerie Plame, an effort that led to perjury and
    obstruction of justice charges against Vice President Dick Cheney’s top
    aide, Lewis I. “Scooter” Libby.

    More recently, the Justice
    Department has begun examining whether classified information was
    illegally disclosed to The Washington Post about a network of secret
    CIA prisons in Eastern Europe and elsewhere.

    The NSA leak probe was launched after the Justice Department received a request from the spy agency.

    is unclear whether Attorney General Alberto Gonzales will recuse
    himself from the inquiry. He was White House counsel when Bush signed
    the executive order authorizing the NSA, which is normally confined to
    overseas operations, to spy on conversations taking place on American

    For the past two weeks, Gonzales also has been one of the
    administration’s point men in arguing that the president has the
    constitutional authority to conduct the spying.

    “It’s pretty
    stunning that, rather than focus on whether the president broke his
    oath of office and broke federal law, they are going after the
    whistleblowers,” said Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the
    American Civil Liberties Union.

    Romero said a special prosecutor
    from outside the Justice Department needs to be appointed. “This
    confirms many of the fears about Gonzales’ appointment _ that he would
    not be sufficiently independent from the president and that he would
    play the role of a crony,” he said.

    Duke University law professor Scott Silliman agreed that the Justice Department is taking the wrong approach.

    in the government has enough concern about this program that they are
    talking to reporters,” Silliman said. “I don’t think that is something
    the Justice Department should try to prosecute.”

    Douglas Kmiec, a
    Pepperdine University law professor, said the Justice probe is the next
    logical step because the NSA is alleging a violation of a law that
    prohibits disclosure of classified information.

    “The Department
    of Justice has the general obligation to investigate suspected
    violations of the law,” Kmiec said. “It would be extraordinary for the
    department not to take up this matter.”

    The NSA probe likely will
    result in a repeat of last summer’s events in Washington, where
    reporters were subpoenaed to testify about who in the administration
    told them about Plame’s work at the CIA. New York Times reporter Judith
    Miller spent 85 days in jail for refusing to reveal her sources.

    Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of
    the Press, said the Plame investigation was about “political
    gamesmanship.” But, she said, the NSA leak probe is frightening.

    this case, there is no question that the public needed to know what the
    New York Times reported,” she said. “It’s much more of a classic
    whistleblower situation. The public needs to know when the government
    is engaged in things that may well be unconstitutional.”

    surveillance program bypassed a nearly 30-year-old secret court
    established to oversee highly sensitive investigations involving
    espionage and terrorism.

    Administration officials insisted that
    Bush has the power to conduct warrantless surveillance under the
    Constitution’s war powers provision. They argued that Congress also
    gave Bush the power when it authorized the use of military force
    against terrorists in a resolution adopted within days of the Sept. 11

    © 2005 The Associated Press