The Justice Department released two decade-old memos Friday night, offering the fullest public airing to date of the Bush administration’s legal justification for the warrantless wiretapping of Americans’ phone calls and e-mails — a program that began in secret after the 2001 terrorist attacks.

The broad outlines of the argument — that the president has inherent constitutional power to monitor Americans’ communications without a warrant in a time of war — were known, but the sweep of the reasoning becomes even clearer in the memos written by then-Assistant Attorney General Jack Goldsmith, who was head of President George W. Bush’s Office of Legal Counsel.

“We conclude only that when the nation has been thrust into an armed conflict by a foreign attack on the United States and the president determines in his role as commander in chief . . . that it is essential for defense against a further foreign attack to use the [wiretapping] capabilities of the [National Security Agency] within the United States, he has inherent constitutional authority” to order warrantless wiretapping — “an authority that Congress cannot curtail,” Goldsmith wrote in a redacted 108-page memo dated May 6, 2004.

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