WASHINGTON - The Justice Department has reopened a long-dormant inquiry into the government's warrantless wiretapping program, a major policy shift only days into the tenure of Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey.
The investigation by the department's Office of Professional Responsibility was shut down after the previous attorney general, Alberto R. Gonzales, refused to grant security clearances to investigators.
"We recently received the necessary security clearances and are now able to proceed with our investigation," H. Marshall Jarrett, counsel for the Office of Professional Responsibility, wrote to Representative Maurice Hinchey of New York. A copy of the letter, dated yesterday, was obtained by the Associated Press.
Hinchey and other Democrats have long sought an investigation into the spying program, to see whether it complies with the law. Efforts to investigate the program had been rebuffed by the Bush administration.
The investigation by the Justice Department agency was begun in February 2006, but was shut down a few months later when the National Security Agency refused to grant Justice Department lawyers the security clearances to ask questions about the program.
The Office of Professional Responsibility was created to ensure Justice Department lawyers do not violate ethical rules. It is not authorized to investigate activities of the National Security Agency.
President Bush's decision to authorize the spy agency to monitor people inside the United States, without warrants, generated a host of questions about the program's legal justification.
The administration has vehemently defended the eavesdropping, saying the National Security Agency's activities were narrowly targeted to intercept international calls and e-mails of Americans and others inside the United States with suspected ties to the Al Qaeda terror network.
A separate Department of Justice internal investigation was also launched by the agency's inspector general, but Democrats have criticized that review for not attempting to determine whether the program violates federal law.
Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. will issue a ceremonial oath of office today to Mukasey, a retired federal judge who has promised to enforce laws fairly and independent of political pressure during his short term.
The White House said that Bush also will speak at the ceremony, set for 10:10 a.m., after which Mukasey will address his employees for the first time.
Mukasey was officially sworn in Friday in a private ceremony with little pomp and publicity, allowing him to start receiving daily classified briefings from his national security aides. Roberts will reenact the oath in front of hundreds of dignitaries and departmental attorneys - with potentially thousands of other employees across the country watching on the department's internal TV network.
Mukasey, the third attorney general of the Bush administration, has 14 months until the president's term is up to turn around the beleaguered department. Gonzales resigned in September amid allegations that he allowed politics to illegally interfere with personnel decisions and lied to Congress about national security programs.
An ongoing department investigation also is looking at last year's firings of nine US attorneys - and whether at least one of them was dismissed for refusing to target Democratic candidates shortly before the 2006 elections.
Mukasey has made clear to Congress that he will not tolerate political meddling at Justice.