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Bush blocked Justice Dept. review of spy program
Yahoo News/Reuters
By Thomas Ferraro
July 18, 2006

WASHINGTON (Reuters) President Bush prevented an investigation earlier this year by Justice Department ethics lawyers of his warrantless domestic spying program, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales testified on Tuesday.

Gonzales told the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, however, that he was confident the program's constitutionality would be upheld in a proposed review by a secret federal court.

Gonzales said Bush refused to give the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility access to the classified program begun shortly after the September 11 attacks and disclosed in December by The New York Times.

The office announced in May it was unable to conduct an investigation into the role department lawyers had in developing the National Security Agency's eavesdropping program, which targets overseas telephone calls and e-mails of Americans with suspected terrorists ties.

Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, asked Gonzales why Bush declined access, saying, "Many other lawyers in the Department of Justice had clearance. Why not OPR?" Noting the importance of the program, Gonzales said: "The president of the United States makes decisions about who is ultimately given access."

At the White House, spokesman Tony Snow said since it is a highly classified program, Bush approves all requests to review it. "There were proper channels for doing legal review, and in fact, a legal review was done every 45 days, and the attorney general himself was involved in it," Snow said.

He told reporters the Office of Professional Responsibility, which investigates possible ethical abuses by Justice Department lawyers, was not the proper venue for conducting the review.

According to memos released on Tuesday, H. Marshall Jarrett, the head of the office, asked top aides to Gonzales and Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty for the security clearances needed to conduct the investigation.

Jarrett said security clearances were given for attorneys and agents assigned to a criminal investigation about the leak of the program to the news media, to Civil Division lawyers defending the program and to members of a civil liberties oversight board.

Specter and other lawmakers have questioned the legality of the program and have pushed for a court review of it.

The 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act requires warrants from a court for intelligence-related eavesdropping inside the United States. Bush has defended the program, saying he had the power in war time to protect the nation.

Specter announced last week he had negotiated a deal with the White House to clear the way for a FISA court review.

He said Bush has promised to submit the program to the court for an overall review provided the U.S. Congress approves a bill to update electronic surveillance laws.

Sen. Edward Kennedy (news, bio, voting record), a Massachusetts Democrat, asked Gonzales if the proposed review was adequate without a case-by-case review.

Gonzales said, "We have confidence that the court will find that, in fact, this is a program that is constitutional."

The administration is also working with Congress on how to try terrorism suspects after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last month that struck down its military tribunals.

Gonzales, in a prepared statement, said "We all have a common goal: to provide flexible but fair procedures that will enable us to try al Qaeda terrorists ... without compromising our nation's values or the safety of the American people."

(Additional reporting by Tabassum Zakaria and James Vicini)

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