WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Attorney General Michael Mukasey pledged to evenhandedly apply the U.S. Constitution on Wednesday as he takes over a Justice Department accused of trampling on civil liberties to fight terrorism under his predecessor.
Just days after Mukasey was confirmed by the Senate last week and began work, the Justice Department said it was proceeding with an investigation into a warrantless domestic wiretapping program launched by President George W. Bush after the September 11 attacks.
Many Democrats have called the program illegal and unconstitutional, and a federal court ruling against it was overturned on appeal. But Bush had stalled the department’s probe by refusing to grant security clearances for investigators.
The Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility told Congress on Tuesday that “we recently received the clearances and are now able to proceed.”
A Democratic lawmaker who had called for the probe said its revival would help expose the true story of the secret program’s development.
Democrats in control of the U.S. Senate voted heavily against Mukasey’s confirmation last week, but failed to block it. Opponents cited concerns over Mukasey’s ability to maintain independence from the White House on issues such as the legality of tactics in the war on terrorism, including the simulated drowning interrogation technique known as “waterboarding.”
Mukasey said at a ceremonial swearing-in on Wednesday he wanted to go beyond his formal oath and offer a pledge: “To continue to protect the freedom and the security of the people of this country and their civil rights and liberties through the neutral and evenhanded application of the Constitution and the laws enacted under it.”
Bush also spoke, saying Mukasey “must ensure that we do everything within the law to defend the security of all Americans, while at the same time protecting the liberty of all Americans.”
Mukasey succeeded longtime Bush friend Alberto Gonzales, who resigned amid charges he had overly politicized the Justice Department and lied to Congress.
Critics accused Gonzales of authorizing the abuse of detained terrorism suspects, and official reports found authorities failed to sufficiently protect Americans’ privacy during terrorism investigations.
The revived Justice Department investigation into the eavesdropping program will focus on whether its attorneys “complied with their ethical obligations of providing competent legal advice to their client,” department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said.
Under the program the National Security Agency listened without a warrant to international calls between Americans and terrorism suspects, despite laws requiring court approval.
The Justice Department said in March that Bush had rejected giving its professional-responsibility office security clearances to investigate the program.
Democratic Rep. Maurice Hinchey of New York, who has charged that Bush administration officials working on the program broke the law, said he was confident the investigation would reveal “the truth about what went on behind closed doors at DOJ and replace the false truths” promoted by the White House and Justice Department on its operation.
White House and department officials declined to comment on what role Bush may have had in approving the new clearances, and whether Mukasey had any role in the investigation’s revival.
Editing by Lori Santos and David Wiessler