Report Describes Careless Handling of U.S. Secrets

As attorney general, Alberto R. Gonzales took home top-secret documents in an unlocked briefcase, according to an inspector general's report.
As attorney general, Alberto R. Gonzales took home top-secret documents in an unlocked briefcase, according to an inspector general's report. (By Seth Wenig -- Associated Press)
By Carrie Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Former attorney general Alberto R. Gonzales told investigators that he could not recall whether he took home notes regarding the government's most sensitive national security program and that he did not know they contained classified information, despite his own markings that they were "top secret -- eyes only," according to a Justice Department report released yesterday.

Gonzales improperly carried notes about the warrantless wiretapping program in an unlocked briefcase and failed to keep them in a safe at his Northern Virginia home three years ago because he "could not remember the combination," the department's inspector general reported.

A National Security Agency official who reviewed the notes said they contained references to operational aspects of the wiretapping initiative, including a top-secret code word for the program, information that had been "zealously protected" by the agency and was "not a close call" in terms of its sensitivity, the report said.

Gonzales brought the notes home with him on Feb. 3, 2005, the day he moved from his post as White House counsel to his new job as the nation's chief law enforcement officer, according to the report. They were at his home or in his briefcase for an "indeterminate" amount of time, investigators said. Ultimately, Gonzales stored them in a safe outside his Justice Department office that was accessible by people who lacked the requisite security clearances to see them.

Gonzales also stored 17 other classified documents on electronic surveillance and detainee interrogation programs there. In one instance, employees searching for material related to a Freedom of Information Act request in 2006 sifted through the sensitive material in the safe "document by document," the report said.

Mishandling classified material violates Justice policies and can result in criminal charges, but prosecutors in the department's national security division declined to bring a case after reviewing the allegations and consulting with career officials, spokesman Dean Boyd said.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman John M. Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) yesterday called on Justice to "explain clearly why it declined to pursue charges against Mr. Gonzales and what actions it intends to take in response to the report."

Through his attorneys and advisers, Gonzales characterized the amount of material he possessed as limited and said the lapses were unintentional. He said he had followed policies as he understood them during his time at the White House. "He always placed the notes in the most secure place over which he had immediate personal control," lawyer George J. Terwilliger III wrote in a memo to Justice Department Inspector General Glenn A. Fine.

During his government service, Gonzales received at least two briefings on security procedures and signed a form indicating that negligent handling of sensitive information could "cause irreparable injury to the United States or be used to advantage by a foreign nation." Before he took the notes home, he met with officials at the Justice Command Center, which is set up to house sensitive information, the report said.

The allegations surfaced inside the government last year, when attorneys in the White House counsel's office reviewed Gonzales's Senate testimony about the wiretapping program after lawmakers questioned his veracity. Counsel Fred F. Fielding and two other lawyers in the office met with Gonzales on July 25, 2007, and later requested that the NSA review his notes. The counsel's office referred the matter to the Justice Department, which dispatched inspector general's agents to pursue it.

The notes covered an "emergency" meeting that President Bush held with congressional leaders in the White House Situation Room in early 2004, as authority for the warrantless wiretapping plan was set to expire.

Gonzales and Andrew H. Card Jr., then presidential chief of staff, visited ailing Attorney General John D. Ashcroft in the intensive-care unit of George Washington University Hospital on March 10, 2004, in an apparent effort to persuade him to reauthorize the program over the objections of Deputy Attorney General James B. Comey.

Authorities said yesterday that they had shared their findings with Justice's security and emergency planning staff and with the NSA, which has the authority to revoke Gonzales's security clearance. Gonzales is not subject to internal department discipline because he resigned in August 2007 amid an uproar in Congress over his role in the firing of nine U.S. attorneys. The inspector general's investigation of that issue is continuing.

Security lapses involving government executives are not unprecedented, but they only rarely result in prosecution. Former CIA director John M. Deutch wrote and stored classified memos on an unprotected computer in his home, agency investigators found. He was discussing a plea bargain on a possible misdemeanor charge when he was pardoned by President Bill Clinton.

The Treasury Department said it improperly released classified information four years ago to former secretary Paul H. O'Neill, who shared it with an author of a book critical of the Bush administration. And in 2005, former Clinton White House national security adviser Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor for stuffing a sensitive terrorism document into his socks, removing it from the National Archives and destroying it.

"Because so much information is classified, there's a tendency to treat classified records in a cavalier fashion," said Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists. "What's shocking here is that the rules are being broken not by some junior program manager but by the nation's chief law enforcement officer."

He added: "At a time when the Justice Department is attempting to prosecute people for mishandling classified information, it is extremely awkward to have the AG accused of something similar."

Next month, two former officials at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee are scheduled to stand trial in Alexandria on felony charges that they improperly received sensitive defense information about Iran and Iraq and shared it with reporters and the Israeli government.

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