White House reverses course on spy program - KLTV.com - Tyler, Longview, Jacksonville |ETX News

01/18/07 - Washington, D.C.

White House reverses course on spy program

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales Attorney General Alberto Gonzales

A year after disclosure of a domestic spying program that President Bush maintained was within his authority to operate, the administration shifted its position and said it would seek the approval of an independent panel of federal judges.

The program allowed the National Security Agency - without a court-issued warrant to monitor phone calls and e-mails between the United States and other countries when a link to terrorism was suspected. Bush secretly authorized the program shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales told senators in a letter Wednesday 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."

Gonzales announced the change on the eve of his appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee, his first since the committee came under control of Democrats after the November elections. Congressional intelligence committees had already been briefed on the shift.

Gonzales said Bush would not reauthorize the program once it expires. The court already has approved at least one warrant to conduct surveillance involving a person suspected of having ties to al-Qaida or an associated terror group, Justice officials said.

White House press secretary Tony Snow said the administration is satisfied with new rules adopted by the FISA court to address administration officials' concerns about national security. Snow could not explain why those concerns were not addressed before the program began.

After The New York Times disclosed the program's existence, many lawmakers and civil libertarians questioned whether it was constitutional. The administration vigorously defended the program as essential to national security.

Although the secret court was established precisely to review requests for domestic surveillance warrants, the White House insisted that such oversight was not required by law and, in fact, would slow efforts to stop terrorists. Bush maintained the warrantless program's existence was "fully consistent with my constitutional responsibilities and authorities."

Last August, a federal judge in Detroit declared the spying program unconstitutional, saying it violated 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.

That appeal, which was scheduled to be heard on Jan. 31, will now likely be rendered moot, said one Justice Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the government has not yet officially decided whether to drop its case.

Attorneys for the department notified the appeals court in a separate letter Wednesday that "the government plans to file promptly papers ... addressing the implications of this development on the litigation."

The American Civil Liberties Union, which sued the government over the program, called the Justice Department's announcement "a quintessential flip-flop."

"The NSA was operating illegally and this eleventh-hour ploy is clearly an effort to avoid judicial and congressional scrutiny," said ACLU executive director Anthony D. Romero. "Despite this adroit back flip, the constitutional problems with the president's actions remain unaddressed."

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