The Justice Department refused to prosecute former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales for improperly storing classified information about two of the Bush administration's most sensitive counterterrorism efforts.
Mishandling classified materials violates Justice Department regulations, and removing them from special secure facilities without proper authorization is a misdemeanor crime.
A report issued Tuesday by the Justice Department's inspector general says the agency decided not to press charges against Gonzales, who resigned under fire last year.
The report by Inspector General Glenn Fine found that Gonzales risked exposing at least some parts of the National Security Agency's terrorist surveillance program, as well as interrogations of terrorist detainees. Some aspects of the surveillance program explicitly referred to in the documents were “zealously protected” by the NSA, the report found.
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Fine referred the case to the Justice Department's National Security Division to see if charges should be brought against Gonzales. But prosecutors dropped the case after an internal review that began earlier this year, said Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd.
“After conducting a thorough review of the matter and consulting with senior career officials inside and outside of the division, the NSD ultimately determined that prosecution should be declined,” Boyd said in a statement.
The lack of charges against the nation's former top law enforcement officer infuriated the Democratic chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, John Conyers, D-Mich., who demanded to know why.
Lawyers for Gonzales acknowledge he did not store or protect the top secret papers – a set of handwritten notes about the surveillance program and 17 other documents – as he should have. But they say he did not intend to risk letting unauthorized people see them, and there's no evidence that occurred.
The report is the latest to take Gonzales to task for mismanagement at the department during his 31 months as attorney general. The criticism could foreshadow the results of an ongoing investigation by Fine's office about Gonzales' role in the 2006 firings of nine U.S. attorneys. That inquiry is expected to be finished within months.
In a statement Tuesday afternoon, Conyers said he was “shocked” by the report's findings that he said only adds “to an already troubling record of the Justice Department under this administration and under Mr. Gonzales.”
“The department ought to explain clearly why it declined to pursue charges against Mr. Gonzales and what actions it intends to take in response to the report,” Conyers said.
At issue is how, and where, Gonzales stored the documents, which are classified as sensitive compartmentalized information, or SCI.
SCI materials are among the most sensitive levels of classified top secret documents and usually concern national security cases. They are supposed to be stored only in special safes or facilities that can be accessed only by certain people with SCI security clearances.
At the Justice Department, however, Gonzales kept the documents in a safe in a fifth-floor office in the attorney general's suite – which is not considered an SCI facility. In 2006, investigators found, the safe was searched by two employees who did not have SCI clearances but who looked through it “document by document” for papers requested through the Freedom of Information Act.
Additionally, the report found, Gonzales also took some SCI documents – specifically, notes about the surveillance program – to his house in suburban Virginia as he was moving from his secure counsel's office at the White House in early 2005 to the Justice Department.
Although he initially said he believed he kept the documents in a safe at his home, Gonzales later told investigators he did not know the combination of the safe. He said he may have kept the papers in his briefcase.