WASHINGTON – The Justice Department has begun an internal inquiry into its role in the Bush administration's domestic eavesdropping program, a lawmaker disclosed on Wednesday.
The investigation is being conducted by the Office of Professional Responsibility, or OPR, which reviews allegations of misconduct within the law enforcement agency.
Marshall Jarrett, the office's counsel, acknowledged the investigation in a letter to Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y. Jarrett's letter did not specify which of the agency's actions or employees are being examined.
"You asked this office to investigate the Department of Justice's role in authorizing, approving and auditing certain surveillance activities of the National Security Agency, and whether such activities are permissible under existing law. For your information, we have initiated an investigation," Jarrett wrote.
Hinchey is one of a few dozen Democratic lawmakers who have been highly critical of the eavesdropping program first revealed in December.
"We're very happy that the OPR is doing it, because it seems on the surface certain illegal actions may have taken place," said Hinchey, one of Congress' most outspoken critics of President Bush.
A message left Wednesday with the Justice Department was not immediately returned.
Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., urged the Senate Intelligence Committee on Wednesday to open its own investigation.
"Everyone is for listening in on terrorists' phone calls. But we don't know who the NSA is listening to or the extent of the program," Biden said.
Democrats are seeking a wide-ranging examination of all domestic spying programs as the committee prepared to discuss the matter in a closed session Thursday.
"Al Qaeda knows that we eavesdrop and wiretap," said Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee. "It is the American people who are surprised and deceived by the president's program of secret surveillance on them without a judge's approval."
Bush's decision to authorize the largest U.S. spy agency to monitor -- without warrants -- people inside the United States has generated a flurry of questions about the program's legal justification.
The administration says the NSA's activities were narrowly targeted to intercept calls and e-mails of Americans and others inside the U.S. with suspected ties to al-Qaida.
One intelligence committee member, GOP Sen. Mike DeWine of Ohio, is considering legislation that would authorize Bush's program by exempting it from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. That law set up a special court to approve warrants for monitoring inside the United States for national security investigations. DeWine also wants Congress to be briefed regularly.
California Rep. Jane Harman, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said she opposes the proposal. Harman said the FISA law should be changed to speed up warrant applications -- a problem cited by the administration -- or the president's program should be canceled.
"To keep this critical foreign collection capability, Congress must put it on a strong legal footing," Harman said.