WASHINGTON -- The Justice Department revealed yesterday that it has reopened an internal investigation into whether department lawyers acted unethically or illegally in connection with the government's warrantless electronic surveillance of terror suspects.
The internal probe was suspended last year after President Bush refused to grant security clearances so investigators could interview Justice officials and others about the National Security Agency program. White House officials said then that Bush viewed the request for the clearances as a security risk because it widened the circle of individuals familiar with the highly classified program.
The reasoning was questioned in some quarters because other department lawyers had been briefed and because the investigating unit, the Office of Professional Responsibility, never had been denied such a clearance in the past.
Spokesman Tony Fratto said the White House would have no comment because the matter involves a continuing investigation.
The about-face came less than a week after Michael B. Mukasey took over leadership of the Justice Department from Alberto R. Gonzales. The administration hopes that his ascendancy will mark a new era after the politically charged tenure of Gonzales.
Democrats had pressed for the inquiry starting in January 2006, shortly after the NSA program was disclosed in news reports. The surveillance program raised concern because its architects had bypassed a federal court that issues warrants in foreign intelligence investigations.
Bush has contended that he had the inherent power to order the surveillance, which involved the monitoring of international e-mail and phone calls passing through the United States.
The role of Justice Department employees in approving the program has been unclear, though some officials have said they expressed doubts about its legality.
Gonzales was Bush's White House counsel when the program was launched. The Justice Department has said that, after he became attorney general, Gonzales recommended to Bush that department lawyers be cleared to proceed with the investigation.
H. Marshall Jarrett, the counsel in charge of the Office of Professional Responsibility, disclosed the revived investigation in a one-paragraph letter to members of Congress yesterday.
"We recently received the necessary clearances and are now able to proceed with our investigation," Jarrett wrote.
A department spokesman, Brian Roehrkasse, said the investigation would focus on whether department lawyers involved in the program "complied with their ethical obligations of providing competent legal advice to their client and of adhering to their duty of candor to the court."
"I think this is going to be very revealing," said Rep. Maurice D. Hinchey, a New York Democrat, one of 40 lawmakers who had sought the original probe. "I don't think there are any security risks involved here. The risk is the basic principle of the Constitution, which protects the people of this country from intrusions by the government. This is a government that aspires to be despotic and do whatever they want."
Richard B. Schmitt writes for the Los Angeles Times.