With news reports exposing the National Security Agency's previously secret spying on the phone conversations of tens of millions of Americans, what is the status of the U.S. Department of Justice probe of the Bush administration's authorization of a warrantless domestic wiretapping program?
The investigation has been closed.
That's right. Even as it is being revealed that the president's controversial eavesdropping program is dramatically more extensive – and Constitutionally dubious -- than had been previously known, the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) has informed Representative Maurice Hinchey that its attempt to determine which administration officials authorized, approved and audited NSA surveillance activities is over.
In a letter to Hinchey, the New York Democrat who has been the most dogged Congressional advocate for investigation of the spying program, OPR Counsel H. Marshall Jarrett explained that he had closed the Justice Department probe on Tuesday, May 9, because his office's requests for security clearances to conduct the investigation had been denied.
"I am writing to inform you that we have been unable to make any meaningful progress in our investigation because OPR has been denied security clearances for access to information about the NSA program," Jarrett explained in his letter to Hinchey. "Beginning in January 2006, this Office made a series of requests for the necessary clearances. On May 9, 2006, we were informed that our requests had been denied. Without these clearances, we cannot investigate this matter and therefore have closed our investigation."
Who blocked the request? The obstruction has come from the very administration that the president asserts is operating "within the laws of our country" and cooperating with appropriate investigations.
The security clearances were blocked by the NSA, which has taken its direction on the spying program from the White House.
Hinchey, who along with Representatives John Lewis of Georgia and Henry Waxman and Lynn Woolsey of California requested the Justice Department inquiry in January, following initial reports regarding the NSA's warrantless wiretapping program, is furious.
"It is outrageous that people within the Bush administration have blocked an investigation into the role that members of the Justice Department played in establishing and executing this secret domestic spy program," says the New York Democrat. "We must get to the bottom of this and reveal who has stifled this investigation. The Bush administration cannot simply create a Big Brother program and then refuse to answer any questions on how it came about and what it entails. We are not asking for top secret information. We simply want to know how the domestic spy initiative evolved and who is behind what many legal scholars believe is an unconstitutional surveillance program. If the administration believes the program is legal then it should have no problem being forthright with Justice Department investigators as to how it was initiated and is being carried out."
The key questions that Hinchey and his colleagues want answered are these:
• Who within the DOJ first authorized the domestic surveillance program?
• What was that official's justification was for doing so?
• Had the Bush administration already enacted the program before getting original DOJ approval?
• What does the reauthorization process for the surveillance initiative entail?
• Why, according to news reports, did the then-Acting Attorney General refuse to reauthorize the program and why the Attorney General expressed strong reservations about the program and may have rejected it as well?
Hinchey is not prepared to let the matter rest.
The congressman is seeking to determine who in the administration prevented the OPR investigators from obtaining the security clearances needed to conduct an investigation. When he has that information, Hinchey says, he will press for a reversal of the denial of the clearances and the reopening of the investigation.
At the same time, Hinchey continues to push on a number of fronts for the opening of a full Congressional inquiry into the warrantless wiretapping program and administration efforts to stifle examinations of its domestic spying initiatives.
While he has often stood alone in the past, Hinchey's calls come as part of a Congressional chorus of concern expressed by key members of the House and Senate on Thursday.
The Senate's chief critic of the spying program, Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold, says that the latest revelations have raised a range of new concerns about the White House's apparent disregard for the Constitution and specific statutes requiring that a warrant be obtained before tapping into the telephone conversations of Americans on American soil.
"This Administration's arrogance and abuse of power should concern all Americans," says Feingold, who has proposed that the president be censured for authorizing the warrantless wiretapping program. "That the government may be secretly collecting, and using data mining to analyze, the phone records of millions of law-abiding Americans, as reported in the press today, is a frightening prospect. I am unaware of this program, and Congress needs to find out exactly what the Administration is doing and whether it is legal. It is time for the Administration to come clean with Congress and the American people. We can effectively fight terrorism and protect privacy, the rule of law, and separation of powers, but only if we have a President who believes in these principles."