WASHINGTON - The Bush White House so strictly controlled access to its warrantless-eavesdropping program that only three Justice Department lawyers were aware of the plan, which nearly ignited mass resignations and a constitutional crisis when a wider circle of administration officials began to question its legality, according to a watchdog report released yesterday.
The unclassified summary by five inspectors general from government intelligence agencies called the arrangements "extraordinary and inappropriate" and said White House secrecy "undermined" the ability of the Justice Department to do its work.
The report is the first public sign of a long-running investigative review of a program that provoked fierce conflict within the highest levels of the Bush administration in 2004.
At the time, Justice's second in command and the FBI director both vowed to resign if President George W. Bush continued with electronic intelligence-gathering that they believed was outside the boundaries of the law.
Yesterday's report was mandated by Congress in legislation last year that updated the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 to accommodate new technologies. The bulk of the review remains highly classified.
The program, which has been called the Terrorist Surveillance Program, is part of a broader intelligence effort known as the President's Surveillance Program. Much of it is not known to the public.
The TSP authorized the National Security Agency to intercept without warrants international e-mail and other communications believed to involve people with ties to al-Qaeda.
The wiretapping program was brought under the oversight of the special Foreign Intelligence Surveillance court in early 2007, after the New York Times reported its existence and chronicled unrest within the Bush administration about its legality.
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