Cover-Up Exposed?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Wednesday, July 19, 2006; 1:00 PM

Amid all the other news yesterday, the attorney general's startling revelation that President Bush personally blocked a Justice Department investigation into the administration's controversial secret domestic spying programs hasn't gotten the attention it deserves.

Bush's move -- denying the requisite security clearances to attorneys from the department's ethics office -- is unprecedented in that office's history. It also comes in stark contrast to the enthusiastic way in which security clearances were dished out to a different group of attorneys: Those charged with finding out who leaked information about the program to the press.

It is not common for a president to personally intervene to stop an investigation of his own administration. The most notorious case, of course, was the Saturday Night Massacre of 1973, during which President Richard Nixon ordered the firing of Archibald Cox, the special prosecutor who had been appointed to investigate the Watergate scandal. Among the many major differences, however: In that case, Attorney General Elliot Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William D. Ruckelshaus resigned rather than follow Nixon's order.

Bush's action is also another example of what I have previously noted is a consistent White House modus operandi: That time and time again, Bush and his aides have selectively leaked or declassified secret intelligence findings that served their political agenda -- while aggressively asserting the need to keep secret the information that would tend to discredit them.

The Coverage

Richard B. Schmitt writes in the Los Angeles Times (page A15): "President Bush personally sidetracked an internal Justice Department probe into the warrantless domestic surveillance program earlier this year, even as other Justice officials were assigned to defend the program in court and investigate who may have leaked information about it to the news media, according to administration officials and documents released Tuesday.

"Raising new questions about the administration's accountability for secret anti-terrorism programs, the White House acknowledged Tuesday that Bush withheld security clearances that attorneys within the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility said they needed to investigate whether department lawyers had acted properly in approving and overseeing the controversial spy program run by the National Security Agency. . . .

"Bush's involvement -- revealed by Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales in testimony Tuesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee and later elaborated upon by White House Press Secretary Tony Snow -- added fuel to the debate over one of the administration's most intensely debated anti-terrorism moves."

Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post (page A4): "Bush's decision represents an unusually direct and unprecedented White House intervention into an investigation by the Office of Professional Responsibility, the internal affairs office at Justice, administration officials and legal experts said. . . .

" 'Since its creation some 31 years ago, OPR has conducted many highly sensitive investigations involving Executive Branch programs and has obtained access to information classified at the highest levels,' the office's chief lawyer, H. Marshall Jarrett, wrote in a memorandum released yesterday. 'In all those years, OPR has never been prevented from initiating or pursuing an investigation.' . . .

"Some legal experts and members of Congress who have questioned the legality of the NSA program said Bush's move to quash the Justice probe represents a politically motivated interference in Justice Department affairs. Rep. Maurice D. Hinchey (D-N.Y.), one of the lawmakers who spearheaded calls for the Justice review, said the move is an example of 'an administration that thinks it doesn't have to follow the law.' "

Neil A. Lewis writes in the New York Times (page A14): "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.

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