WASHINGTON — The Justice Department has opened an investigation into the leak of classified information about President Bush’s secret domestic spying program.
The inquiry focuses on disclosures to The New York Times about warrantless surveillance conducted by the National Security Agency since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, officials said.
The Times revealed the existence of the program two weeks ago in a front-page story that acknowledged the news had been withheld from publication for a year, partly at the request of the administration and partly because the newspaper wanted more time to confirm various aspects of the program.
White House spokesman Trent Duffy said Justice undertook the action on its own, and the president was informed of it on Friday.
“The leaking of classified information is a serious issue. The fact is that al-Qaida’s playbook is not printed on Page One and when America’s is, it has serious ramifications,” Duffy told reporters in Crawford, Texas, where Bush was spending the holidays.
Catherine Mathis, a spokeswoman for The Times, said the paper will not comment on the investigation.
Administration under fire
Revelation of the secret spying program unleashed a firestorm of criticism of the administration. Some critics accused the president of breaking the law by authorizing intercepts of conversations — without prior court approval or oversight — of people inside the United States and abroad who had suspected ties to al-Qaida or its affiliates.
The surveillance program, which Bush acknowledged authorizing, bypassed a nearly 30-year-old secret court established to oversee highly sensitive investigations involving espionage and terrorism.
Administration officials insisted that Bush has the power to conduct the warrantless surveillance under the Constitution’s war powers provision. They also argued that Congress gave Bush the power to conduct such a secret program when it authorized the use of military force against terrorism in a resolution adopted within days of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
The Justice Department’s investigation was being initiated after the agency received a request for the probe from the NSA.
Special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald has been conducting a separate leak investigation to determine who in the administration leaked CIA operative Valerie Plame’s name to the media in 2003.
Several reporters have been called to testify before a grand jury or to give depositions. New York Times reporter Judith Miller spent 85 days in jail, refusing to reveal her source, before testifying in the probe.
The administration’s legal interpretation of the president’s powers allowed the government to avoid requirements under the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in conducting the warrantless surveillance.
The act established procedures that an 11-member court used in 2004 to oversee nearly 1,800 government applications for secret surveillance or searches of foreigners and U.S. citizens suspected of terrorism or espionage.
Congressional leaders have said they were not briefed four years ago, when the secret program began, as thoroughly as the administration has since contended.
Daschle: Congress denied White House request
Former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle said in an article printed last week on the op-ed page of The Washington Post that Congress explicitly denied a White House request for war-making authority in the United States.
“This last-minute change would have given the president broad authority to exercise expansive powers not just overseas ... but right here in the United States, potentially against American citizens,” Daschle wrote.
Daschle was Senate Democratic leader at the time of the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington. He is now a fellow at the Center for American Progress, a liberal Washington think tank.
The administration formally defended its domestic spying program in a letter to Congress last week, saying the nation’s security outweighs privacy concerns of individuals who are monitored.
In a letter to the chairs of the House and Senate intelligence committees, the Justice Department said Bush authorized conducting electronic surveillance without first obtaining a warrant in an effort to thwart terrorist acts against the United States.
Assistant Attorney General William E. Moschella acknowledged “legitimate” privacy interests. But he said those interests “must be balanced” against national security.
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