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Justice Department to re-open no-warrant wiretap probe

  • Story Highlights
  • The Bush administration has cleared the way for an internal investigation
  • Administration had long blocked it by not allowing necessary security clearances
  • It's unclear why the Bush administration changed course
  • Notification of the probe was sent to five members of Congress
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From
CNN's Terry Frieden
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Bush administration has apparently changed policy and cleared the way for the Justice Department to restart an investigation into the government's no-warrant electronic surveillance program, a department official told Congress on Tuesday.

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The Justice Department said it will investigate the conduct of lawyers involved in the wiretapping program.

For months the White House had blocked granting the security clearances necessary for investigators in the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility to determine whether any department attorneys had engaged in unethical behavior.

In a March letter to congressional leaders, an assistant attorney general had stressed that former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales had recommended the clearances be granted, but the president decided not to do so.

H. Marshall Jarrett, head of the Justice office, told members of Congress on Tuesday that the investigation will be reopened. But in his one-paragraph letter Jarrett sidestepped the issue of who in the Bush administration had reversed course.

"We recently received the necessary security clearances and are now able to proceed with our investigation," Jarrett said in the letter he wrote to five members of the House, including Rep. Maurice Hinchey, a Democrat from New York.

Hinchey and other Democrats have been asking for a probe into the legality of the domestic spying program. It involves using the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on international phone calls and e-mails from people inside the United States with suspected ties to terrorists.

"I am happily surprised," Hinchey told The Associated Press. "It now seems because we have a new attorney general [Michael Mukasey] the situation has changed. Maybe this attorney general understands that his obligation is not to be the private counsel to the president but the chief law enforcement officer for the entire country."

Jarrett said the investigation will be confined to the "role of Department of Justice attorneys in the authorization and oversight of the warrantless electronic surveillance by the National Security Agency and in complying with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act."

Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehkasse -- who said the letter had been sent to five members of the House of Representatives -- stressed the limited nature of the probe.

"The Department of Justice's Office of Professional Responsibility investigation will focus on whether the DOJ attorneys who were involved complied with their ethical obligations of providing competent legal advice to their client and of adhering to their duty of candor to the court," he said.

Disclosure of the decision to approve the clearances came only hours before President Bush goes to the Justice Department to attend the formal swearing in of Attorney General Michael Mukasey.

Chief Justice John Roberts will swear in Mukasey before a crowd of hundreds of Justice Department employees Wednesday morning. Then both Bush and Mukasey will address the audience.

Mukasey finished his first full day on the job Tuesday in private meetings. His speech will mark the first time for most of the employees to see and hear from the man who has vowed to bring changes in both substance and style to the battered department in the final 14 months of the president's term. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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