Report: Ex-AG Gonzales Mishandled Classified Info

The Justice Department's Inspector General says former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales mishandled classified documents. The report says Gonzales took home the documents related to the domestic-surveillance program, and did not secure them in a safe there.

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The Justice Department's inspector general has found that Alberto Gonzales mishandled top secret documents. The 29-page report released today says that the former attorney general risked exposing some of the nation's top secrets.

NPR's legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg has the story.

NINA TOTENBERG: Initially, the inspector general's office was directed to investigate Gonzales' handling of highly classified White House notes that he took with him to the Justice Department when he became attorney general.

Later, Inspector General Glenn Fine and his investigators discovered at least 17 other documents loaded with top secret signal information and code words that Gonzales had mishandled in violation of Justice Department rules and potentially in violation of federal criminal laws.

The White House notes were created by Gonzales when he was the White House counsel and at the instruction of President Bush. The purpose was to memorialize a meeting that had taken place days earlier at which the congressional leadership was briefed about the warrantless surveillance program authorized by the president.

The administration later used those notes to buttress its argument that the leadership had agreed to the president's actions.

Gonzales took those notes with him when he became attorney general, and according to today's report, took them home in his briefcase on his first night as attorney general after he was briefed about how such material must be kept in specifically protected Justice Department safes.

At home, Gonzales acknowledged, he did not put the material into his own safe because he had forgotten the combination, nor does he remember whether he locked his briefcase. In the years that followed, Gonzales stored this information and 17 other documents that the inspector general discovered in a safe outside his Justice Department office that also was not designated as protected for such top secret material.

The report includes that the safe was accessible to more than a half dozen Gonzales staff members who did not have clearance to see such material.

California Congresswoman Jane Harman, who served as ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, recalls that none of the members of Congress who were briefed about the surveillance program - none of them was allowed to take notes or to tell anyone else about what they had learned.

Representative JANE HARMAN (Democrat, California; Ranking Member, House Intelligence Committee): Here we have the attorney general preparing notes after the fact when none of the rest of us could do anything such thing. Keeping them in violation of classification rules and then selectively declassifying them when it was politically useful.

TOTENBERG: Indeed, key congressional committees have only in the last year won limited access to a small portion of the material Gonzales was keeping in his office safe and sometimes taking home.

Lawyers for Gonzales declined to comment on tape, but said in a statement that the former attorney general either forgot or was unaware of the rules on how to handle such information, and that he regrets the lapse.

Gonzales is hardly the only person to get in deep trouble over mishandling top secret information. Career Justice Department lawyers who have made such careless mistakes have sometimes seen their careers ruined. And former CIA Director John Deutch, who wrote intelligence reports on his home computer, avoided criminal charges for mishandling information when he was pardoned by President Clinton.

Former Inspector General Michael Bromwich explains why the inspector general's report today is so tough on Gonzales.

Mr. MICHAEL BROMWICH (Former Inspector General, Justice Department): You have to have the same standard for everyone. And you particularly have to have the high standard for those most high-ranking officials who deal with the most sensitive security matters.

TOTENBERG: In this case, though, the Justice Department declined prosecution.

Again, Michael Bromwich.

Mr. BROMWICH: What comes through in the IG report, though, is a general level of obliviousness by Attorney General Gonzales to what the rules were and what were the appropriate classifications for at least some of these documents. So I think that his very cluelessness, in a way, about the rules that apply to these documents may, in the end, have helped him avoid prosecution.

TOTENBERG: Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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