Report Faults Handling of Wiretap Notes
Tuesday, September 2, 2008
Former attorney general Alberto R. Gonzales improperly handled classified information about some of the government's most sensitive national security programs, but authorities will not recommend that he face criminal sanctions, according to officials familiar with an investigative report to be released today.
The Justice Department's inspector general has concluded that Gonzales should have taken precautions to safeguard the materials, related to the government's warrantless wiretapping program and other eavesdropping initiatives, when he became the nation's top law enforcement official more than three years ago. Investigators did not find any evidence that the information had been shared with or accessed by people who lacked the proper clearance to review it.
At issue are notes that Gonzales took during a March 2004 meeting between President Bush and congressional leaders in the White House Situation Room, as a program that allowed authorities to secretly monitor communications for evidence of terrorist plots was set to expire.
When Gonzales, then White House counsel, moved to become the Justice Department's top official in early 2005, he failed to secure the notes in a sensitive compartmentalized facility, the inspector general has concluded. Gonzales kept the notes in a safe in his office and at times took them to and from work in a briefcase -- practices that violated protocols for the handling of classified materials, according to people familiar with the report.
In a memo to the inspector general, Gonzales's advisers characterized the episode as an unintentional mistake and a technical violation of the rules.
Officials in the Justice Department's national security division looked at the inspector general's report but did not find a case to prosecute, according to a source familiar with the deliberations. The source spoke on the condition of anonymity because the report has not yet been made public. The findings also have been shared with the Justice Department office that monitors security practices and with the National Security Agency, which oversees the surveillance program that is described in the notes.
Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse referred calls about the report to Inspector General Glenn A. Fine, who declined to comment yesterday. Fine's office has conducted an extensive investigation of the role of politics in hiring and enforcement decisions at Justice.
"The Office of Inspector General dealt with us on this issue with a great deal of professionalism and thoroughness," said George J. Terwilliger III, an attorney for Gonzales. "We're gratified the results of this investigation showed that no unauthorized disclosure of this material came about."
Gonzales resigned in August 2007 amid an uproar in Congress over his role in the firing of nine U.S. attorneys. Since that time he has maintained a low profile, writing an opinion piece on Latino voters for the Los Angeles Times and serving as a special master in a complex business case in Texas. Investigators for the inspector general continue to examine Gonzales's statements to lawmakers about the warrantless wiretapping program and the basis for dismissing the prosecutors.
Today's report may shed more light on one of the most intense disputes during the Bush administration, an episode that prompted Gonzales and then-White House chief of staff Andrew H. Card Jr. to visit ailing Attorney General John D. Ashcroft at the hospital in an apparent effort to persuade him to reauthorize the surveillance program.
James B. Comey, then Justice's second in command, intercepted the White House emissaries in the intensive-care unit of George Washington University Hospital on March 10, 2004, and refused to approve the program without changes that he asserted would make it legal.
Two days later, Comey and FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III met separately with President Bush, who agreed to make still-unspecified changes to avert a mass resignation by Comey, Mueller and other Justice officials.