The Northern Virginia Daily's Political Depot

A service for our readers outside the Northern Shenandoah Valley... a sampling of The Daily's political coverage, plus unofficial, 'reporter's notebook' stuff. And occasional dry humor...

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Location: Strasburg, Virginia

Monday, May 22, 2006

Justice Department: NSA wiretaps are being monitored, even without Justice investigation

Agency defends dropping investigation in letter to Rep. Wolf

By Garren Shipley
Daily Staff Writer

The U.S. Department of Justice may not be able to investigate how its employees have acted in a secret anti-terror wiretapping program, but its employees are being monitored.

“Although ... [a branch of the Justice Department] has determined not to pursue its investigation, the operation and implementation of the Program continues to be the subject of exacting scrutiny and oversight,” Assistant Attorney General William E. Moschella wrote in a letter to Rep. Frank Wolf, R-10th, last week.

President Bush acknowledged late last year that he has authorized the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on phone conversations between suspected terrorists from overseas and U.S. citizens.

But the wiretaps are done without the consent of a secret Foreign Intelligence Services court, which can retroactively authorize wiretaps related to national security.

Lawyers with the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility had been given the job of investigating the agency’s involvement with the wiretapping program to ensure that no laws were broken by department employees.

But the NSA declined to give the investigators the necessary security clearances they needed to review the program, essentially closing down the review.

The announcement was made the same day USA Today ran a story claiming that major phone companies were providing customer calling records to NSA without court orders.

The Bush administration has yet to either confirm or deny the program, but the phone companies named in the story, including local provider Verizon, have denied the paper’s charges.

Wolf, R-10th, told reporters that he called for answers about the aborted investigation, but a reply might take days.

Wolf is the chairman of the State Science Justice Commerce subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee. That sub-panel is responsible for budget oversight for agencies like NASA, as well as the State Department and Department of Justice.

Moschella’s letter argues that, even though Justice’s Office of Professional Responsibility can’t review the program, it is being subjected to “the most intense oversight regime in the history of the National Security Agency.”

The program is so classified that the fewer people who know the details, the better, he wrote. But the program is being reviewed thoroughly and regularly.

“That review includes scrutiny by the National Security Agency’s Office of the General Counsel and by the agency’s Inspector General, who — unlike the Office of Professional Responsibility — is specifically charged with overseeing the lawfulness of employees’ actions implementing National Security Agency Programs,” Moschella wrote.

Administration officials, including Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, have argued that the authority for the program comes from the president’s inherent powers as commander in chief of the armed forces during a time of war.