WASHINGTON – The government has abruptly ended an inquiry into the warrantless eavesdropping program because the National Security Agency refused to grant Justice Department lawyers the necessary security clearance to probe the matter.
The Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility, or OPR, sent a fax to Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y., on Wednesday saying they were closing their inquiry because without clearance their lawyers cannot examine Justice lawyers' role in the program.
"We have been unable to make any meaningful progress in our investigation because OPR has been denied security clearances for access to information about the NSA program," OPR counsel H. Marshall Jarrett wrote to Hinchey. Hinchey's office shared the letter with The Associated Press.
Jarrett wrote that beginning in January, his office has made a series of requests for the necessary clearances. Those requests were denied Tuesday.
"Without these clearances, we cannot investigate this matter and therefore have closed our investigation," wrote Jarrett.
Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said the terrorist surveillance program "has been subject to extensive oversight both in the executive branch and in Congress from the time of its inception."
Roehrkasse noted the OPR's mission is not to investigate possible wrongdoing in other agencies, but to determine if Justice Department lawyers violated any ethical rules. He declined to comment when asked if the end of the inquiry meant the agency believed its lawyers had handled the wiretapping matter ethically.
Hinchey is one of many House Democrats who have been highly critical of the domestic eavesdropping program first revealed in December. He said lawmakers would push to find out who at the NSA denied the Justice Department lawyers security clearance.
"This administration thinks they can just violate any law they want, and they've created a culture of fear to try to get away with that. It's up to us to stand up to them," said Hinchey.
In February, the OPR announced it would examine the conduct of its own agency's lawyers in the program, though they were not authorized to investigate NSA activities.
Bush's decision to authorize the largest U.S. spy agency to monitor people inside the United States, without warrants, generated a host of questions about the program's legal justification.
The administration has vehemently defended the eavesdropping, saying the NSA's activities were narrowly targeted to intercept international calls and e-mails of Americans and others inside the U.S. with suspected ties to the al Qaeda terror network.
Separately, the Justice Department sought last month to dismiss a federal lawsuit accusing the telephone company AT&T of colluding with the Bush administration's warrantless wiretapping program.
The lawsuit, brought by an Internet privacy group, does not name the government as a defendant, but the Department of Justice has sought to quash the lawsuit, saying it threatens to expose government and military secrets.