Leak of NSA spying is probed

Justice Department launches inquiry, with Bush's support, into disclosure of surveillance


WASHINGTON -- The Justice Department disclosed yesterday that it is investigating who leaked classified information about President Bush's top-secret domestic spying program, signaling a likely contentious criminal probe that reaches into the highest echelons of the White House, Congress and the courts.

Several U.S. officials familiar with the investigation - which is in its infancy - said that it would be conducted by FBI agents trained in probing national security matters and counter-intelligence.

The officials said it would focus on disclosures in The New York Times about the National Security Agency's surveillance of people within the United States without obtaining warrants from a special federal court that was established to approve them.

The existence of the warrantless spying program has caused an uproar in Congress and among privacy experts, who said the Bush administration may have broken the law by intentionally bypassing the secret federal court that is supposed to oversee sensitive investigations involving suspected espionage and terrorism.

Like another continuing high-profile leak investigation with political overtones, the case involving outed CIA agent Valerie Plame, witnesses and potential targets of any criminal prosecution - including journalists - will probably be brought before a federal grand jury that will hear evidence and ultimately vote on whether to issue indictments, the U.S. officials said.

The officials said that all federal probes into the leaking of classified information are sensitive. But the level of sensitivity surrounding the current probe is already extraordinary - and likely to intensify - because of the presumption that few government officials had access to the ultra-classified program. Most of those are in high-ranking posts in the White House, the NSA or other intelligence agencies, Congress or the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

Officials at the Justice Department, the FBI and the National Security Agency refused to comment in detail, except to confirm yesterday that the criminal probe was under way.

"We have opened an investigation into the unauthorized disclosure of classified information related to the NSA. We have no comment beyond that," said a Justice Department spokesman, who said he was not authorized to comment by name, given the sensitivity of the investigation.

White House spokesman Trent Duffy said President Bush was first informed of the existence of the probe in a briefing by senior aides yesterday morning while he was at his ranch in Crawford, Texas.

The domestic spying program was first reported by The New York Times, which said in a lengthy article Dec. 16 that the White House had authorized the NSA to intercept and monitor the international calls and e-mail traffic of people inside the United States shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The Times said it based its findings on interviews with more than a dozen knowledgeable U.S. officials over the past year or more, many of whom said they were concerned that the program was an unchecked and potentially illegal use of executive power.

It is a federal crime to discuss or disseminate classified information, especially if it is believed to have compromised the national security of the United States, as Bush has contended in the current case.

In confirming the existence of the surveillance program, Bush said Dec. 17 that the extraordinary measure was needed after the Sept. 11 attacks to protect Americans from terrorists intent on launching more attacks.

By law, the NSA is largely prohibited from conducting such domestic surveillance, and it is supposed to get permission in each specific case from a secret tribunal of federal judges formed under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

Bush and other senior administration officials have sharply criticized the newspaper report and its purported sources for revealing the existence of the program, suggesting that it has given al-Qaida a tactical advantage in the war on terrorism.

But yesterday, the president and his senior aides had little or no comment on the probe. Duffy told reporters that the White House did not ask the Justice Department to launch the investigation but that the president and his aides supported it.

"The president [has spoken] directly about how he felt about the leaking of classified information," Duffy said. "The 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."

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