The Justice Department’s internal watchdog said Tuesday that former Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales had only been on the job a few hours the first time he mishandled highly classified documents.
All told, a report from Justice Department Inspector General Glenn A. Fine concluded, Mr. Gonzales failed to properly secure 18 top-secret documents related to National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance and detainee-interrogation programs.
The report is the latest in a series from Mr. Fine’s office that have been highly critical of Mr. Gonzales and the Justice Department under his leadership. Mr. Gonzales resigned in 2007 after two tumultuous years at his post. But whereas previous reports found concerted efforts by staff to fill department ranks with conservatives or Republicans, the latest report suggests carelessness.
The report concluded that Mr. Gonzales brought home notes that included classified information from a meeting about the NSA surveillance program. It also found that he improperly kept 17 other classified documents in a safe outside his office at the Justice Department that at least five staff members without appropriate clearances could access.
The Inspector General concluded that the violations were serious enough to refer the case to the Justice Department’s National Security Division (NSD) for possible criminal prosecution.
“After conducting a thorough review of the matter and consulting with senior career officials inside and outside of the division,” said Justice spokesman Dean Boyd, “the NSD ultimately determined that prosecution should be declined.”
That decision drew the ire of the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, who called the report “shocking.”
“The department ought to explain clearly why it declined to pursue charges against Mr. Gonzales and what actions it intends to take in response to the report,” said Rep. John Conyers Jr., Michigan Democrat.
A 19-page statement from Mr. Gonzales’ attorneys said their client always meant to secure classified information, even if he didn’t always do it in compliance with regulation and policy.
“It is clear from the report that there is no evidence that the acknowledged shortcomings in Judge Gonzales’ handling of this material resulted in any unauthorized disclosure of classified information,” the statement said.
According to the inspector general’s report, the notes that Mr. Gonzales took home related to one of the most controversial situations he was involved in.
On March 4, 2004, Deputy Attorney General James Comey refused to sign off on the legality of the NSA surveillance program. Mr. Comey was acting as attorney general at the time because Attorney General John Ashcroft was hospitalized with acute pancreatitis.
President Bush convened a meeting six days later to discuss Mr. Comey’s position and explore legislative solutions for the impasse, according to the report. The vice president, intelligence officials and high-ranking congressional leaders were in attendance.
Sometime after that meeting, Mr. Gonzales, who was White House counsel at the time, and Andrew H. Card Jr., then-White House chief of staff, went to Mr. Ashcroft’s hospital room - but he also refused to sign off on the legality of the program. That tactic drew heavy criticism to Mr. Gonzales, Mr. Card and the Bush administration.
According to the report, the president directed Mr. Gonzales to take notes on the earlier meeting. The notes recorded the reactions of the congressional leaders but also included details of the program and the code word used to identify it.
The day Mr. Gonzales was sworn in as attorney general nearly a year later, he brought the notes from the meeting to the Justice Department. The report concluded that he later put the notes in his briefcase and brought them home, where they remained for an “indeterminate” period of time. Mr. Gonzales told investigators that he did not remember bringing the notes home.