By Ryan Singel
September 02, 2008 | 8:44:56 PMCategories: NSA
Former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales repeatedly violated federal secrecy rules by mishandling documents containing "zealously protected" secrets about government's warrantless wiretapping program, then lied to investigators to cover up his actions, Justice Department investigators reported Tuesday.
Before his ouster in August, 2007, Gonzales was prone to storing an ultra-secret document about the so-called Terrorist Surveillance Program in his briefcase at his home -- near, but not inside, a personal safe. And at his office, he stored at least 18 top secret documents about the NSA's wiretapping in a safe used by at least five employees not cleared to know about the program, according to a 29-page report (.pdf) from the department's Inspector General.
At issue are notes Gonzales wrote in March 2004 following a high-stakes rebellion at the Justice Department by conservative Republican appointees questioning the legality of the government's warrantless wiretapping program. Gonzales, then White House counsel, wrote 21 paragraphs of notes "memorializing" what top Congress officials were told about the the program, and how they reacted. Though he did not officially classify the notes, he wrapped them in several envelopes and at one point, wrote "AG - Eyes Only Top Secret" on the outermost envelope.
In fact the notes and other documents were so sensitive, they were classified as Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmented Information or TS/SCI. That means that the documents can only be properly stored and viewed in specially constructed rooms immune to eavesdropping of all kinds.
But Gonzales told IG investigators he did not think the documents were classified -- though they were the only documents he took with him when he moved from being White House Counsel to Attorney General, according to the report.
Gonzales claimed he "regarded the notes as 'sensitive' because the President asked him to draft them, and thus he 'treated [the notes] as classified.'"
"However, it is clear that the notes contained classified information," the report concludes. "Further, Gonzales's own actions indicated that he viewed the notes as classified. ... We believe that writing "Top Secret" on the envelope suggests that he knew the notes were in fact classified."
When the New York Times revealed the existence of the warantless spying program in December 2005, Gonzales described the leak as a dire threat to the country, and suggested that the journalists who reported on the story could be prosecuted under the Espionage Act.
Interestingly, that same law makes it a federal crime to treat classified information with "gross negligence" resulting in improper storage. But Gonzales is in no danger of feeling its wrath. The Inspector General referred the matter to the National Security Division, where officials declined to prosecute their former boss.