Thursday, January 18, 2007

Bush won't reauthorize U.S. eavesdropping program; Will follow substitute measure approved by Secret court

Bush won't reauthorize U.S. eavesdropping program
By James Vicini

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Bush has decided not to renew a program of domestic spying on terrorism suspects, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said on Wednesday, ending a tactic criticized for infringing on civil liberties.

Gonzales said electronic surveillance will be subject to approval from a secret but independent court, which Democrats in Congress and other critics have demanded during more than a year of fierce debate.

"The president has determined not to reauthorize the Terrorist Surveillance Program when the current authorization expires," Gonzales wrote in a letter to congressional leaders that disclosed the administration's shift in approach.

Bush has reauthorized the program every 45 days, and the current authorization is mid-cycle, a senior Justice Department official said. Gonzales said a recent secret-court approval allowed the government to act effectively without the program.

The program, adopted after the September 11 attacks, allowed the government to eavesdrop on the international phone calls and e-mails of U.S. citizens without a warrant, if those wiretaps were made to track suspected al Qaeda operatives.

Critics have said the program violated the U.S. Constitution and a 1978 law, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which made it illegal to spy on U.S. citizens in the United States without the approval of the special surveillance court.

Gonzales said a judge on the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court on January 10 approved a government proposal allowing it to target communications into and out of the United States when probable cause exists that one person is a member of al Qaeda or an associated terrorist organization.

The court's judges provide an independent review of the administration's requests for warrants for eavesdropping.


He reiterated the administration's position that the program has been legal, but said the government will now have the ability to act with sufficient "speed and agility."

White House spokesman Tony Snow said the new rules approved by the court addressed administration concerns.

"The president will not reauthorize the present program because the new rules will serve as guideposts," Snow said.

Gonzales' letter came the day before he was scheduled to appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee, where the Democrats now in power were expected to question him closely about the program.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat and the judiciary committee's chairman, welcomed Bush's decision.

"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," he said.

Sen. Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat and a judiciary committee member, said, "Why it took five years to go to even this secret court is beyond comprehension."

Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the ranking Republican on the judiciary committee, said, "It is regrettable that these steps weren't taken a long time ago."

Last year a federal judge in Detroit ordered the Bush administration to stop the surveillance because it violates Americans' civil rights.

The Bush administration has appealed the ruling to a federal appeals court, where the case is pending. The administration immediately told the court of Bush's decision.

Gonzales said the administration began exploring options for seeking FISA court approval for the program in the spring of 2005, well before it was publicly disclosed at the end of that year, creating a firestorm of criticism.

He did not give details of the court's orders.

(Additional reporting by Tom Ferraro, Deborah Charles and Tabassum Zakaria)