The Department of Justice today released documents showing senior administration officicals blocked an internal DOJ probe into the NSA spy program. A series of internal memos released from the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Reponsibility (OPR) shows in detail how the department was blocked from pursuing an investigation into whether Justice Department attorneys acted appropriately in their consideration of the NSA program. While this fact has been generally known, the letters show just how frustrated OPR attorneys were and how unusual the action was.
In a series of letters dated Jan. 20, 2006, Feb. 16, 2006, and Mar. 20, 2006, OPR repeatedly asks the Justice Department leadership for security clearance to review the department’s role in the authorization of the NSA program.
In the March letter, OPR notes that it had been denied security clearances even though attorneys from the Civil Division and Criminal Division had been granted clearance to learn about the program. The Civil Division attorneys granted the clearances were defending the program from legal challenges, and the Criminal Division attorneys and FBI agents were investigating the leaks that led to the disclosure of the program. The blocking of the clearances effectively stopped the OPR investigation. "As a result, this Office, which is charged with monitoring the integrity of the Department’s attorneys and with ensuring the highest standards of professional ethics are maintained, has been prevented from performing its duties," according to the Mar. 20, 2006, letter.
In April of this year, OPR gave up, stating bluntly, "Since its creation some 31 years ago, OPR has conducted many highly sensitive investigations involving Executive Branch programs and has obtained access to information classified at the highest levels. In all those years, OPR has never been prevented from initiating or pursuing an investigation."
Today, Attorney General Gonzales suggested President Bush himself blocked the clearance because he wanted to limit the number of people with access to the program. White House spokesman Tony Snow offered a similar response. But critics are still asking why the administration neutralized members of its own Justice Department as they tried to excercise oversight.