The US Department of Justice (DOJ) has begun an internal investigation into its handling of information gathered in the government's domestic spying program. Democrats criticized the review as too narrow to determine whether federal law was violated.
The inquiry by Glenn Fine, the department's inspector general, will focus on the role of DOJ prosecutors and agents in carrying out the warrantless surveillance program run by the National Security Agency (NSA), a top US electronic spying office.
Fine's investigation is not expected to address whether the controversial program is an unconstitutional expansion of presidential power, as its critics and a federal judge in Detroit have charged.
"After conducting initial inquiries into the program, we have decided to open a program review that will examine the department's controls and use of information related to the program," Fine wrote in a letter dated Monday to House Judiciary Committee leaders.
Department of Justice spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said the agency welcomes the review.
"We expect that this review will assist Justice Department personnel in ensuring that the department's activities comply with the legal requirements that govern the operation of the program," Roehrkasse said.
In January, Fine's office rejected a request by more than three dozen Democrats to investigate the secret program, which monitors phone calls and e-mails between people in the US and abroad when links to terrorism are suspected.
Fine's letter on Monday outlining his review was welcomed by congressional Democrats. At the same time, they said it falls short of examining issues at the heart of the debate -- how the spying program evolved and whether its creation violated laws.
"A full investigation into the program as a whole, not just the DOJ's involvement, will be necessary," Democratic Representative Zoe Lofgren said.
The review could include whether the spying program complies with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which requires judicial authorization for electronic surveillance and physical searches of people suspected of espionage or international terrorism on behalf of a foreign power. The DOJ requests surveillance approval from the FISA court.
The DOJ has called the program a necessary tool in the fight against terrorism, and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is pushing congressional Republicans to authorize it before they cede power. That prospect has a slim chance of approval.
Caroline Fredrickson, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Washington office, urged Fine "to seek the hidden truth about this program. ... No one, not even the president, is above the law."