The Bush administration has agreed to shift course and let a secret but independent panel of federal judges oversee the government’s controversial domestic spying program.
The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court will have final say in approving wiretaps on communications involving people with suspected terror links, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said Wednesday in a letter to the leaders of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Since Jan. 10, when the court began overseeing the program, at least one request has been approved to monitor communications of a person believed to be linked to al-Qaida or an associated terror group.
In his letter to Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Arlen Specter, R-Pa., Gonzales wrote that “any electronic surveillance that was occurring as part of the Terrorist Surveillance Program will now be conducted subject to the approval of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.”
The Bush administration secretly launched the Terrorist Surveillance Program in 2001 to monitor international phone calls and e-mails to or from the United States involving people suspected by the government of having terrorist links. Gonzales said Bush would not reauthorize the program.
The shift in oversight means that all wiretaps or other eavesdropping tools by the federal government must be approved by court order. Previously, the program allowed investigators to spy without a warrant Ã¢â‚¬â€ resulting in widespread criticism from lawmakers and others who questioned the legality.
“The issue has never been whether to monitor suspected terrorists but doing it legally and with proper checks and balances to prevent abuses,” Leahy, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said Wednesday in welcoming the change. “Providing efficient but meaningful court review is a major step toward addressing those concerns.”
The turnaround came after more than a year of stubborn insistence by the White House that oversight by the secret court was not required by law and, in fact, would be a hindrance to stopping terrorists. The FISA court was established in the late 1970s to review requests for warrants to conduct surveillance inside the United States.
Bush has maintained that the warrantless surveillance program’s existence was “fully consistent with my constitutional responsibilities and authorities,” and has said he would continue to reauthorize it “for as long as our nation faces a continuing threat from al-Qaida and related groups.” He has said circumventing the FISA court “enables us to move faster and quicker.”
On Wednesday, the White House said it is satisfied with the new guidelines to address administration officials’ concerns about national security.
“The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has put together its guidelines and its rules and those have met administration concerns about speed and agility when it comes to responding to bits of intelligence where we may to be able to save American lives,” White House press secretary Tony Snow said.
Snow said he could not explain why those concerns could not have been addressed before the program was started. He said the president will not reauthorize the present program because the new rules will serve as guideposts.
A federal judge in Detroit last August declared the program unconstitutional, saying it violates the rights to free speech and privacy and the separation of powers. In October, a three-judge panel of the Cincinnati-based appeals court ruled that the administration could keep the program in place while it appeals the Detroit decision.
Additionally, the Justice Department’s inspector general is investigating the agency’s use of information gathered in the spying program. In testimony last fall in front of the Senate panel, FBI Director Robert Mueller said he was not allowed to discuss classified details that could show whether it has curbed terrorist activity in the United States.
Congressional intelligence committees have already been briefed on the court’s orders, Gonzales said in his letter. It was sent to the Senate Judiciary Committee the day before he is set to testify before the panel, which oversees the Justice Department.
Some Democrats said the change still may not go far enough.
“While this may be a step in the right direction, it should not deflect the attention of the American people or the Congress from seeking answers about the current and past operation of this program,” said House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers, D-Mich.
Copyright Ã‚Â© 2007 The Associated Press