Justice review will assess NSA surveillance conduct

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The Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General will review President Bush’s domestic terrorist surveillance program to see whether federal prosecutors are following laws governing the handling of information gathered by the National Security Agency on suspected U.S.-based terrorists.

“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,” Inspector General Glenn A. Fine said in a letter to the House Judiciary Committee leadership.

The Justice Department has described the surveillance program, initiated after the September 11 attacks, as “an essential tool for the intelligence community” in its war on terror, adding that it “ensures we have in place an early warning system to detect and prevent a terrorist attack.”

“In the ongoing conflict with al Qaeda and its allies, the president has the primary duty under the Constitution to protect the American people,” the department said in a briefing paper. “The Constitution gives the president the full authority necessary to carry out that solemn duty, and we believe the program is lawful and protects civil liberties.”

Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales has called the program’s scope “very narrow,” saying it focused only on communications with al Qaeda. He said it had been “very effective” in protecting the United States and that reviews of it by lawyers at the Justice Department and the NSA found it to be legal.

The White House has agreed to give investigators from the inspector general’s office special clearances to probe the program, Mr. Fine noted in his letter, which was sent to Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Wisconsin Republican, and the panel’s ranking Democrat, Rep. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan.

Earlier this year, Mr. Fine said his office did not have jurisdiction to open an investigation into the program. An inquiry by the Justice Department Office of Professional Responsibility also was blocked this year by the administration when repeated requests for security clearance were denied.

Democrats and Republicans in both the House and Senate have questioned Mr. Bush’s constitutional authority to conduct wiretapping, saying — among other things — that the program improperly bypassed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court established by Congress to approve or reject secret surveillance or searches of those suspected of terrorism or espionage.

The inspector general’s review was conducted in the wake of conflicting rulings by two federal judges.

In Washington, U.S. District Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle disagreed with the People for the American Way Foundation, a liberal advocacy group that unsuccessfully sought records from the NSA under the Freedom of Information Act to discover how many wiretaps were approved and who reviewed the program.

Judge Huvelle said that even if the program ultimately was found to be illegal, the requested documents were classified and not covered by the act.

In Detroit, U.S. District Judge Anna Diggs Taylor agreed with a challenge from the American Civil Liberties Union, which said the program was unconstitutional. The judge granted a permanent injunction halting the program but delayed implementing her order pending a Justice Department appeal.

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