WASHINGTON – Attorney General Alberto Gonzales should appoint a special counsel to investigate the legality of the Bush administration’s eavesdropping program, 18 House Democrats told President Bush in a letter released today.
The lawmakers said the surveillance of terrorists must be done within the bounds of U.S. law, but complained that their efforts to get answers to legal and factual questions about the program have been stymied – “generally based on the feeblest of excuses.”
The lawmakers initially asked the independent watchdogs at the Justice and Defense departments to open inquiries. Both declined.
Justice’s inspector general Glenn Fine said he lacked authority and deferred to the department’s Office of Professional Responsibility. That office has said it is investigating the conduct of the department’s lawyers, but not the program’s lawfulness.
Congress’ investigative arm, the General Accountability Office, similarly declined to open a review, noting the administration would be expected to designate the necessary documents as foreign intelligence materials and limit access to them.
The Democrats see “ample precedent” for a special counsel, citing the Justice Department’s appointment of U.S. attorney Patrick Fitzgerald to investigate the leak of the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame.
After 22 months of investigation, Fitzgerald indicted the vice president’s chief of staff, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, for allegedly lying about his role in the disclosure.
“Indeed, the allegation of a secret NSA spying program conducting warrantless domestic surveillance of U.S. persons is at least as serious” as the matter Fitzgerald investigated, the Democrats wrote.
In their six-page letter, the Democrats said the special counsel should investigate any possible violation of federal criminal law, noting that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act says the monitoring of U.S. citizens and residents – without a warrant – is punishable by imprisonment.
Bush administration officials have argued the program does not fall within that law.
The 18 lawmakers also want the special counsel to consider any crimes that may be committed to interfere with the investigation, including perjury, obstruction of justice, destruction of evidence and witness intimidation.
The request harkens back to Libby, who was not indicted specifically for leaking Plame’s name, but for an alleged cover-up that included five counts of obstruction of justice, perjury and making false statements to FBI agents.