WASHINGTON -- The National Security Agency could have legally monitored ordinarily confidential communications between doctors and patients or lawyers and their clients, the Justice Department said yesterday of its controversial warrantless surveillance program.
Responding to questions from Congress, the department also said it sees no prohibition to using information collected under the NSA's program in court.
''Because collecting foreign intelligence information without a warrant does not violate the Fourth Amendment and because the Terrorist Surveillance Program is lawful, there appears to be no legal barrier against introducing this evidence in a criminal prosecution," the department said in responses to questions from lawmakers released yesterday evening.
The department said considerations, including whether classified information could be disclosed, must be weighed.
In classified court filings, the Justice Department has responded to questions about whether information from the government's warrantless surveillance program was used to prosecute terror suspects.
Defense lawyers are hoping to use that information to challenge the cases against their clients.
Since the program was disclosed in December, some skeptical lawmakers have investigated the Bush administration's legal footing, raising questions including whether the program could capture doctor-patient and attorney-client communications.
Such communications normally receive special legal protections.
''Although the program does not specifically target the communications of attorneys or physicians, calls involving such persons would not be categorically excluded from interception," the department said.
The department said the same general criteria for the surveillance program would also apply to doctors' and lawyers' calls: One party must be outside the United States, and there must be reason to believe one party is linked to Al Qaeda.
The department's written response also said that these communications aren't specifically targeted and that safeguards are in place to protect privacy rights.
Representative John Conyers of Michigan, the House Judiciary Committee's top Democrat, said the department was evasive in its answers to questions from the House and Senate Judiciary committees, submitted to Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales.
All but two of 45 answers to the House Judiciary Democrats were vague and unresponsive, Conyers said.
He found the response regarding doctor-patient and attorneyclient privilege particularly troublesome. More generally, the ''need for oversight is especially glaring," he said in a statement.
Brian Roehrkasse, Justice Department spokesman, said the department ''has been extremely forthcoming and clear about the administration's legal analysis through multiple briefings with Congress, three hearings with the attorney general, multiple letters to Congress, a 42-page white paper, and dozens of questions for the record."
Responding in 75 typed pages, the department clarified some points in the three-month-old debate over the program. But it also left many questions unanswered, citing the need for national security.
House Democrats asked whether any other president has authorized wiretaps without court warrants since the passage of the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which governs intelligence collection inside the United States.
The department said, ''if the question is limited to 'electronic surveillance' . . . we are unaware of such authorizations."