By Devlin Barrett and Brent Kendall
The Justice Department has dropped an investigation into a former department lawyer who leaked the existence of a warrantless wiretapping program, a classified counterterrorism effort that sparked a fierce battle inside the Bush administration in 2004.
Thomas Tamm, now a lawyer in private practice in Maryland, called the New York Times in 2004 about the program. The paper won a Pulitzer Prize for its 2005 story about how the U.S. government had, without warrants, intercepted calls and emails into and out of the U.S.
Attorney General Eric Holder told reporters Tuesday that the case had been reviewed by career prosecutors before the decision was made. "They look at these matters in an exhaustive fashion and reach what I think are appropriate conclusions,'' Mr. Holder said.
Mr. Tamm's lawyer, Paul Kemp, said federal prosecutors had notified him verbally about a year ago that they weren't going to prosecute Mr. Tamm. "They didn't tell me why,'' said Mr. Kemp, who added his client "never released any kinds of methods or means concerning the wiretap program. All he did was leak the existence of the wiretapping program.''
The controversial program led to a dramatic 2004 confrontation among senior Bush administration officials at the hospital bedside of John Ashcroft.
During Mr. Ashcroft's illness, his deputy, James Comey, had assumed the responsibilities of the attorney general. When informed of the warrantless wiretapping program, Mr. Comey objected, saying it ran afoul of federal surveillance law. Because the program's legal authorization was expiring, White House officials tried to convince Mr. Ashcroft to sign the necessary paperwork, which he refused to do after Mr. Comey raced to the hospital to intercede. At one point, Mr. Comey and other senior officials in the Justice Department planned to resign over the matter, but President George W. Bush talked them out of it.
When the program's existence was made public, many Democrats called it illegal while many Republicans decried the leak as a breach of national security.
House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Peter King said Tuesday he was disappointed the department chose not to prosecute the case. "This was very sensitive information released at a time of war that put Americans at risk and it's a terrible precedent to set, that a government official can be releasing top secret information to a media outlet or anyone,'' said Mr. King, a New York Republican.