The U.S. Justice Department has launched an investigation into who leaked details of a secret domestic eavesdropping program approved by President Bush in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States.
The probe is expected to focus on what officials describe as the unauthorized disclosure of classified materials related to the use of the secretive National Security Agency to eavesdrop on phone calls and e-mails of some people inside the United States suspected of having terrorist ties.
Disclosure of the program first appeared in The New York Times newspaper, which reported that President Bush authorized the government to do the monitoring, without having to first obtain a warrant from a special intelligence surveillance court.
The Bush administration says the program involves the monitoring of some international phone calls and e-mail traffic of people inside the United States and abroad, who have suspected ties to terrorists. Under a law passed in 1978, domestic spying by the U.S. government is prohibited, without a court-ordered warrant.
Administration officials contend the president has the authority to order the expanded eavesdropping program under powers granted to him by the Congress in the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales recently defended the program on NBC television. "We believe that the authorization to use military force [against Afghanistan] constitutes the statute that does give permission for the president of the United States to engage in this kind of very limited, targeted electronic surveillance against our enemies," he explained.
News of the domestic spying program provoked outrage among some opposition Democrats and civil liberties activists.
Duke University Law School Professor Erwin Chemerinsky is among a host of constitutional scholars who assert that President Bush broke the law by authorizing domestic wiretaps, without permission from the special surveillance court. "What is so disturbing is that the president, rather than follow even those minimal requirements, has, in an unprecedented way, authorized domestic eavesdropping, without meeting any of the Constitution's requirements," he said.
The controversy over the domestic spying program will continue into the New Year, as Congress prepares to hold hearings on the issue when lawmakers return to Washington in January.