The Justice Department's inspector general has informed the Judiciary and Intelligence committees of both the House and Senate that he will begin a review of the controversial NSA Terrorist Surveillance Program.
In a letter to the committees, Inspector General Glenn Fine wrote that the review would be to examine the Justice Department's "controls and use of information related to the program and the department's compliance with legal requirements governing the program."
The inspector general's office had previously deferred a congressional request to review the NSA program and the attorney general's authorization of the program to the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility, an internal DOJ watchdog that monitors the activities of DOJ lawyers.
In March, Fine noted in a report to Congress on the USA PATRIOT Act, "Under the department's interpretation of the jurisdictional authority of the OIG and OPR, allegations regarding the attorney general's legal authorization of NSA surveillance fell within DOJ OPR's jurisdiction, not the OIG's."
After an initial review by OPR earlier this year, the congressional oversight committees were informed by the chief OPR attorney, Marshall Jarrett, that his attorneys had repeatedly been denied proper security clearances by the White House.
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in July 2006 that the decision not to grant the clearances was ultimately made by President Bush.
"As with all decisions that are non-operation in terms of who has access to the program, the president of the United States makes the decision," Gonzales said.
Members of Congress have been asking for the internal Justice Department review since the program was first disclosed by the New York Times last year.
"After trying for nearly a year to get DOJ to conduct an investigation of the NSA's warrantless spy program, I am very pleased to learn that the agency's inspector general is finally opening an investigation," Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y., said in response to Fine's letter.
In today's letter sent to the chairmen of the Judiciary and Intelligence committees, Fine wrote, "On Oct. 20, 2006, I made a formal request to the attorney general for additional clearances for OIG staff to conduct this program review. The attorney general forwarded the request to the White House... Last week, I received word that the request for clearances for the OIG staff to conduct this review would be granted."
The inspector general's office will now look at how information obtained through the NSA program is used when it concerns U.S. citizens, but it will not review the legal authority of the program. That is an issue that is being fought over in the courts.
In August, U.S. District Judge Anna Diggs Taylor determined that the NSA program was unconstitutional. The Justice Department appealed the judge's decision to the 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, which has yet to rule on the issue.
Revelations about the NSA program in The New York Times sparked controversy because the program, which is intended to intercept communications of suspected al-Qaeda members, allowed U.S. intelligence and counterterrorism officials to eavesdrop on U.S. residents without a warrant or judicial notification.
Terrorism wiretaps of U.S. citizens have traditionally been approved by the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which is located behind electronically sealed doors at the Justice Department.
Although Hinchey supported the inspector general in the investigation, he questioned the timing of the White House security clearance reviews following the election.
"While I'm glad that the White House finally relented and granted additional clearances for DOJ officials to conduct an investigation, I can't help but be skeptical about the timing," Hinchey said. "I wonder whether this reversal is only coming now after the election as an attempt to appease Democrats in Congress who have been critical of the NSA program and will soon be in control and armed with subpoena power."
In recent remarks in Colorado, Gonzales defended the program.
"To be certain that the program is no broader than it must be, it is regularly reviewed to ensure the protections of civil liberties. Indeed, about every 45 days, the program is reviewed to ensure that is still necessary," Gonzales said.