Former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales mishandled notes and documents related to a counterterrorism program that he described as "probably the most classified program that exists in the U.S. government," according to a Justice Department report released today.
The Justice Department inspector general's investigation found that despite the highly sensitive nature of the National Security Agency program, which has been shrouded in secrecy for years, Gonzales not only failed to keep notes and documents related to it in proper safes, but he also kept top secret classified notes about the program unsecured at his house.
"Our investigation found that Gonzales mishandled classified materials while serving as attorney general," the report from Justice Department Inspector General Glenn Fine noted. "The evidence shows that he took [Top Secret]/[Sensitive Compartmentalized Information] notes about the NSA surveillance program to his residence and improperly stored them in a briefcase there for an indeterminate period of time."
Gonzales certainly knew the delicate nature of the material. After the existence of the program was disclosed in media reports, he said during a briefing in December 2005: "This is a very classified program. It is probably the most classified program that exists in the U.S. government, because the tools are so valuable."
The notes were related to the NSA program instituted shortly after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, that allowed warrantless wiretapping of Americans.
The notes centered on an "emergency" meeting held March 10, 2004 at the White House with congressional leaders, Vice President Dick Cheney and NSA Director Michael Hayden about aspects of the program, which intercepted domestic communications possibly linked to al Qaeda members, according to the inspector general, who interviewed Gonzales about the handling of the documents.
That meeting sparked tension between top members of the Justice Department, which found it could no longer support the authorization of the warrantless wiretapping program, and other members of the administration.
Former Deputy Attorney General James Comey and FBI Director Robert Mueller have both testified before Congress that after the meeting Gonzales, then serving as White House counsel, visited Attorney General John Ashcroft while he was hospitalized, seeking reauthorization of the surveillance program, even though Ashcroft had ceded his powers to Comey.
According to the report, Gonzales told the inspector general that his "intent in drafting the notes was to record the reactions of the congressional leaders during the meeting, as opposed to recording any operational details about the program that were discussed."
"However, Gonzales' summary also referenced [Top Secret] operational aspects of the program by his use of specific terms associated with the program. The notes also included the SCI code word used to identify the program," the report also said.
Last year, Gonzales reviewed portions of his notes as he prepared for congressional testimony about the program and the course of events that took place. Investigators found that Gonzales did not keep the documents locked in a safe he had at his residence because, "Gonzales did not know the combination," according to the report.