Senate Dems expand probe of AG’s wiretapping move

Adding to the Justice Department’s myriad crises on Capitol Hill, four senior Senate Democrats are expanding their probe of the internal discussions that led President Bush to deny security clearances to Justice officials investigating his administration’s warrantless surveillance program.

The furor over Bush’s intervention in the inquiry flared anew earlier this month following a report in the National Journal that alleged Attorney General Alberto Gonzales advised Bush to block security clearances for the department’s Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR). Gonzales made his recommendation after hearing that OPR’s investigation of the eavesdropping project likely would have focused on him, according to the report.
Sens. Dick Durbin (Ill.) and Charles Schumer (N.Y.), Nos. 2 and 3 respectively in the Democratic leadership, along with Sens. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), wrote to Gonzales immediately after the report seeking more information.

But the response the Democrats received from Richard Hertling, acting assistant attorney general, left them unsatisfied. Hertling stated that Gonzales was never aware that he could be a target of OPR’s questions and that the embattled attorney general was overruled when he advised Bush to grant the clearances.

“His letter raises more questions than it answers, particularly since Mr. Hertling has no firsthand knowledge regarding the matters discussed,” the senators told Gonzales in a follow-up missive, sent Friday. “In light of the scope of the OPR investigation, how could you have been unaware that your actions would be scrutinized?”

The senators also asked Gonzales to explain his failure to convince Bush to grant the clearances, a query at the heart of many Democrats’ principal criticism: that Gonzales’s lack of independence from Bush renders the attorney general ineffective and not credible. Internal Justice documents the senators sought in their first letter were not provided, leading them to set a deadline of tomorrow for a full response.

Justice spokesman Dean Boyd pointed to Hertling’s letter as refuting the charges made in National Journal, and said the department is currently reviewing the senators’ follow-up letter.

As lawmakers in both parties continue to insist on transcribed and public interviews with White House aides involved in the U.S. attorney firings scandal, the security-clearances debate signals a prolonged fight on many fronts between Congress and Justice — one that few in the capital believe Gonzales will survive. New documents made public this weekend led Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the first member to raise an alarm about the ousted prosecutors, to make her first call for Gonzales’s resignation.

After Bush blocked the security clearances, Inspector General Glenn Fine opened his own inquiry into Justice’s role in the warrantless surveillance program. Fine also began investigating the U.S. attorney firings last Friday.