NSA Operations Remain Opaque to Investigators
RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:
New allegations that the NSA is compiling a database on millions of domestic telephone calls follows reports that the NSA had listened in on international calls that reached into the U.S. without obtaining court warrants. That prompted calls for an investigation. NPR's Ari Shapiro reports on what happened when the Justice Department tried to investigate.
ARI SHAPIRO: The U.S. Department of Justice has shut down its investigation of warrantless eavesdropping. It says it had to because investigators were denied the security clearance they needed. The investigators were from the office of Professional Responsibility, which was created to investigate allegations of misconduct by Justice Department attorneys. For the office's first 24 years Michael Shaheen was at the helm.
MONTAGNE: No one in OPR for the 24 years I was there was denied the necessary clearance, ever, and much less one that brought to a conclusion an investigation. That just makes it smell the worse.
SHAPIRO: Larry Simms, who worked at the Justice Department under Presidents Carter and Reagan, says that's absurd. The National Security Agency and the Justice Department are both parts of the executive branch. So, he says, one can't deny the other clearance. He calls this a bald-faced cover-up.
MONTAGNE: To say that an agency can block an investigation by refusing to give federal investigators here at the Office of Professional Responsibility the clearances they need is just astounding.
SHAPIRO: If the attorney general wanted to, could he see to it that these people got the clearances they need?
MONTAGNE: Oh, sure. Would the head of NSA defy the attorney general? It's silly. The whole idea is silly. So what you have to do is you have to look at this as an order that came from the attorney general, with or without the actual knowledge of the president. This is an attorney general slash president issue.
SHAPIRO: Bruce Fein worked in the Justice Department under President Reagan. He believes the White House must have known of the NSA's decision to block the Justice Department investigation.
MONTAGNE: This is rather bizarre, with the one branch of the executive saying the other branch can't investigate it. Well, they're all beholden to the president of the United States. He decides what is to be unearthed, what is to be disclosed, and it's clear that Mr. Bush is deciding he won't permit any investigation as to the legal advice he received about the warrantless surveillance program of the NSA.
SHAPIRO: Democratic Congressman Maurice Hinchey of New York requested the Justice Department investigation. He says he doesn't know who withheld the security clearances, but he has suspicions.
MONTAGNE: My guess would be the attorney general. My guess would be that the high-ranking people within the Justice Department put a stop to it, and perhaps under the direction of the White House.
SHAPIRO: Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.
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