WASHINGTON (AP) – The Bush administration changed course and agreed yesterday to let a secret but independent panel of federal judges oversee the government’s controversial domestic spying program. Officials say the secret court has already approved at least one request for monitoring.
The shift will likely end a court fight over whether the warrantless surveillance program was legal.
The program, which was secretly authorized by President Bush shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, was disclosed a little over a year ago, resulting in widespread criticism from lawmakers and civil libertarians who questioned its legality.
The program allowed the National Security Agency – without approval from the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court – to monitor phone calls and e-mails between the United States and other countries when a link to terrorism is suspected.
In a letter to senators yesterday, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said 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 said Bush would not reauthorize the program once it expires. Justice Department officials later said authorization for one investigation under the warrantless program was set to expire soon, but they would not specify when.
Justice Department officials say 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.
After it was revealed in 2005, 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 would slow efforts to stop terrorists.
From the start, Bush maintained the warrantless program’s existence was “fully consistent with my constitutional responsibilities and authorities,” and said he would continue to reauthorize it “for as long as our nation faces a continuing threat from al-Qaida and related groups.”