"Bush administration puts spy program under court supervision
Source: Agence France Presse 01/18/2007
WASHINGTON, Jan 18, 2007 (AFP) -
President George W. Bush's administration put a controversial domestic spying program under supervision of a special court after months of sharp criticism over the eavesdropping.
Civil rights group had criticized the program, in which Bush authorized the National Security Agency (NSA) to eavesdrop on phone calls and emails between the US and abroad without a court warrant.
Despite legal challenges after the program was revealed in press reports in 2005, the government had insisted that the president could legally authorize the NSA to eavesdrop on international communications it believes involve terror suspects without seeking court approval.
But in a letter to the top Democrat and Republican of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said Wednesday Bush would not renew the Terrorist Surveillance Program as it had found an effective and quick system to gain approval through an ultra-secretive court.
A judge from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court issued orders on January 10 authorizing the government to target international communications when there is probable cause that one of the individuals is an Al-Qaeda operative or from an associated terror organization, Gonzales said.
"As a result of these orders, 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," Gonzales wrote.
"Although, as we have previously explained, the Terrorist Surveillance Program fully complies with the law, the orders the government has obtained will allow the necessary speed and agility while providing substantial advantages," he wrote.
"Accordingly, under these circumstances, the president has determined not to reauthorize the Terrorist Surveillance Program when the current authorization expires," Gonzales wrote to Democrat Patrick Leahy, the committee's chairman, and the ranking Republican, Arlen Specter.
Bush had been re-authorizing the program every 45 days.
A federal judge had ordered a halt to the program in August, saying Bush had overstepped his authority, but an appeals court immediately suspended the ruling at the request of the NSA.
Leahy welcomed the Bush administration's announcement Wednesday.
"We must engage in all surveillance necessary to prevent acts of terrorism, but we can and should do so in ways that protect the basic rights of all Americans including the right to privacy," Leahy said in a statement.
"The issue has never been whether to monitor suspected terrorists but doing it legally and with proper checks and balances to prevent abuses," he said.
On the Senate floor, Specter cautiously welcomed the move and recalled that the administration had refused to reveal details of the program while he was chairman of the Judiciary Committee last year.
"I am glad to see that we may now have all of that resolved," Specter said, adding, however, "I want to know all of the details of this program."
"It is regrettable that these steps weren't taken a long time ago," he said.
"I would like to have an explanation as to why it took from last spring of 2005 and at least past December 16, when there has been such a public furor and public concern," Specter said.
Melissa Goodman, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, a powerful group that challenged the surveillance program in court, said the new eavesdropping process was still too secretive.
"The Bush administration has conceded that there should be some judicial role on NSA spying on Americans, but unfortunately we still just don't understand enough about what's going on now," Goodman said.
"He's basically moved the program into a completely secret court," she said.
A senior Justice Department official, who requested anonymity in a teleconference with reporters, said orders issued by the secret court last 90 days and are "very closely" supervised by a judge.
But the official refused to disclose more details.