Bush Blocked Ethics Inquiry, Gonzales Says
By NEIL A. LEWIS
Published: July 19, 2006
WASHINGTON, July 17 — Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales told the Senate
Judiciary Committee on Tuesday that President Bush had personally decided to
block the Justice Department ethics unit from examining the role played by
government lawyers in approving the National Security Agency’s domestic
Mr. Gonzales made the assertion in response to questioning from Senator
Arlen Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania and chairman of the committee. Mr.
Specter said the Office of Professional Responsibility at the Justice
Department had to call off an investigation into the conduct of department
lawyers who evaluated the surveillance program because the unit was denied
clearance to review classified documents.
“Why wasn’t O.P.R. given clearance as so many other lawyers in the
Department of Justice were given clearance?” Mr. Specter asked.
Mr. Gonzales replied, “The president of the United States makes decisions
about who is ultimately given access,” and he added that the president
“makes the decision because this is such an important program.”
The head of the Office of Professional Responsibility, H. Marshall Jarrett,
began the investigation in response to requests from members of Congress in
January. But in May, Mr. Jarrett wrote to Representative Maurice D. Hinchey,
a New York Democrat who joined in the request, saying that he could not
proceed because he and his colleagues had been denied security clearances to
review the history of the secret surveillance program.
The shutting down of Mr. Jarrett’s efforts had been previously reported, but
Mr. Gonzales’s comments Tuesday during a hearing on oversight of the Justice
Department were the first acknowledgment of Mr. Bush’s direct role.
Administration officials said Mr. Bush made the decision because he believed
there were other avenues of oversight, including investigations by the
inspectors general of the Justice Department and the National Security
Agency as well as the Intelligence Committees of both houses.
“We had to draw the line somewhere,” said a senior Justice Department
official who spoke on condition of anonymity because of lack of
authorization to comment. “There was already lots of oversight on this
program, and we had to consider the interest” in protecting the program’s
secrecy by limiting the number of people who knew its details.
The official also asserted that while some lawyers might have questioned the
legality of the surveillance program, there was never an issue of legal
ethics, which is the purview of the Office of Professional Responsibility.
“We were trying to limit the scope of people who had access to all the
details of the program,’’ the official said, “and a judgment was made that
it was not worth reading these additional people into it.”
Mr. Hinchey disagreed, saying that he had been told by officials from the
office of the inspector general in the Justice Department that the ethics
unit was the appropriate office to investigate how lawyers behaved in
evaluating the program and whether they were manipulated.
Paul Martin, the deputy inspector general, said Tuesday that his office was
“conducting preliminary inquiries into the F.B.I.’s role and use of
information” from the surveillance program.
Representative Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat who had also sought an
O.P.R. investigation of the surveillance program, said Tuesday that she was
shocked that Mr. Bush had blocked the clearances of lawyers from that
“The president’s latest action shows that he is willing to be personally
involved in the cover-up of suspected illegal activity,” Ms. Lofgren said.
Mr. Gonzales also told the committee that Congress should consider giving
explicit approval to the kind of military commissions that the Supreme Court
struck down last month.
He also urged Congress to enact a law that would strip federal courts of the
ability to consider hundreds of challenges brought by terror suspects being
held at the United States naval base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. In its ruling
last month, the Supreme Court rejected the Bush administration’s argument
that the law as currently written applied to the hundreds of pending cases.
Mr. Gonzales also seemed to back slightly away from his suggestions that the
Justice Department might consider prosecuting reporters who write about
Mr. Specter asked him about comments in a May 21 television interview in
which the attorney general said he had been trying to determine whether to
prosecute someone from The New York Times for its disclosures about the
“Are you considering the prosecution of the author of that article?” Mr.
Mr. Gonzales replied that with respect to The Times and other publications,
“our longstanding practice, and it remains so today, is that we pursue the
He added that the administration “hopes to work with responsible journalists
and persuade them not to publish” such articles.