January 17, 2007 1:08 PM PST

Attorney general: NSA spy program to be reformed

The Bush administration will substantially alter its controversial domestic surveillance program by seeking approval for wiretaps from a secret court, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said Wednesday.

The surprise announcement by Gonzales said President Bush has agreed that "any electronic surveillance that was occurring" under the program will be conducted subject to the approval of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in Washington, D.C. The program is conducted by the National Security Agency.

In a two-page letter (PDF) to the U.S. Senate's Judiciary committee, Gonzales did not specify what prompted the abrupt policy change. Gonzales did say that it took "considerable time and work" for the Justice Department to devise a method that suited both prosecutors and the judges on the court.

The change appears to represent a concession to critics of the NSA program, who have charged that it was illegal and unconstitutional for the government to spy on Americans without any judicial oversight. The Bush administration claims that only international communications involving someone with ties to terrorism are targeted.

It's not clear if the letter was prompted by legal or political concerns. Gonzales' announcement came less than 24 hours before he is scheduled to appear before the now Democrat-controlled Senate for a public hearing about Justice Department activities.

Alberto Gonzales Alberto Gonzales

Democratic politicians welcomed the news. "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," Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, the head of the Judiciary committee, 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."

In addition, the Bush administration signaled on Wednesday that it would use the announcement to delay or derail lawsuits that arose out of the NSA program. In a letter (click for PDF) sent to the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, the government said it will file legal briefs "addressing the implications of this development on the litigation." (One federal judge already has ruled the program to be unconstitutional.)

Cindy Cohn, legal director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco, said it's too early to say whether her group's lawsuit against AT&T would be affected. "It's too early for us to comment," Cohn said. "I don't think we can say anything definitive one way or another."

That lawsuit, which a federal judge let proceed on November 17, claims that the telecommunications company unlawfully opened its networks to the NSA. AT&T has not confirmed or denied participating, though one of its lobbyists has pointedly described "very specific federal statutes that prescribe means, in black and white law, for provision of information to the government under certain circumstances."

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, created by the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, is known as a secret court because its hearings are held behind closed doors and its proceedings are kept confidential. Only certain Justice Department attorneys may attend its sessions.

Bush's decision does not take effect immediately. He has renewed the NSA surveillance program every 45 days since it began shortly after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and Gonzales' letter says only that Bush has "determined not to reauthorize" it after the current period expires.

What Gonzales' letter did not do is reveal, even in general terms, how the FISA court will oversee the administration's electronic surveillance requests.

CONTINUED: Many questions remain…
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14 comments

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Checks and balances?
Quote: "The issue has never been whether to monitor suspected terrorists but doing it legally and with proper checks and balances to prevent abuses."

How does a secret court closed to the public address the checks and balances issue?
Posted by SiouxsieCat (7 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Checks and Balances Aren't Necessarily Public
Checks and balances aren't necessarily public info. Bringing the FISA court in brings in another branch of government, and brings it within the letter of the law as written by congress. That's checks and balances.

I was very upset when I heard the administration was using illegal (IMHO) surveillance techniques. I believe that allowing FISA to review the program brings it within the scope of the law and the U.S. constitution. And I wonder why the administration put up the fight to begin with.

mark d.
Posted by markdoiron (1138 comments )
Link Flag
RE: NSA SPYING PROGRAM
Back in the old days a citizen would be surprised about what the NSA knows about us.

If a NSA brought in a 16 year old muslim gril for questioning She could easily be a smart ass.

NSA: DUDE Lisa We know all about you.
LISA: Yeah so I put all my info on Myspace anyway.

NSA is so owned!
Posted by inachu (963 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Ooohhh... I Feel Better.
Let me get this straight...

A SECRET court-system, which has already been ABUSED... will SECRETLY over-see an ILLEGAL wiretapping program... against American-citizens... for an administration which has already, flatly, stated that, "...it is ABOVE THE LAW" where ANY allegations of "Anti-American activities", are concerned.

Yeah, big difference. So, I guess they finally decided that simply rewriting the LAWS, after being caught COMMITTING ILLEGAL-ACTS... just wont cut it?

Thank God the SECRET paper-work will, now, be kept straight. Oh well... I guess Ill just keep posting my REVULSION to this ongoing, OBSCENE MUTILATION of American-Freedom, until I am SECRETLY-ARRESTED, and SECRETLY TRIED, using SECRET-EVIDENCE (possibly obtained using SECRET-TORTURE in SECRET-PRISONS) for violating SECRET-LAWS.
Posted by Had_to_be_said (384 comments )
Reply Link Flag
The question is...
The question is, will they tell you that you are in prison? I would think that you would not have the security clearance to know.
Posted by ralfthedog (1589 comments )
Link Flag
Reality check...
Okay - check and balances refers to relationship between the executive/legislative/judicial branches of the govt., not the policies instituted by those agencies.

This is NOT a domestic spying program - it monitors the communications of foreign terrorists, and can conceivably involve US citizens IF they are in communication with terrorists. Why are we extending the protections of the constitution to foreign terrorists and those who are in league with them?
Posted by blish (9 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Reality check...
Okay - check and balances refers to relationship between the executive/legislative/judicial branches of the govt., not the policies instituted by those agencies.

This is NOT a domestic spying program - it monitors the communications of foreign terrorists, and can conceivably involve US citizens IF they are in communication with terrorists. Why are we extending the protections of the constitution to foreign terrorists and those who are in league with them?
Posted by blish (9 comments )
Reply Link Flag
True reality check....
It's a major leap to suggest that the only people affected are terrorists and those "in league with them." If you step back and watch, you will see it goes farther than that.

Besides, what about the old idea of people being "innocent until proven guilty?" Without that, all you have to do is say that someone is a terrorist and their freedoms are gone!
Posted by ddesy (4336 comments )
Link Flag
Clueless
You're right about checks and balances, but the rest of your
assertions are missing a basis in reaility. For one, the program
ONLY and ALWAYS involves communications of US citizens. That's
it's whole point.
Posted by Mark Greene (163 comments )
Link Flag
NSA need to Spy on the Attorney General
Attorney General Sold our Country safety and Government To Mexico When Border Patrol Goes to Jail Arm Men makes our National Guard runs in Fear and Jobs and Social Security Given With out Respect of our LAWS.
Posted by cohaver (189 comments )
Reply Link Flag
What?
Between the odd capitaliztion, poor grammar, and run-on sentence structure I have no clue what you just said!
Posted by ddesy (4336 comments )
Link Flag
I like your title...
though the content leaves a bit to be desired...

Anyway, Gonzales is determined to undermine the Constitution and
the Congress. What could be more anti-American than that?
Posted by Mark Greene (163 comments )
Reply Link Flag
don't let them get away with this!
Please people, stay alert to what is going on here.

This program has been found to be unconstitutional and illegal.
Period. Congress is finally starting to look into finding someone
culpable for this mess and suddenly the true enemies of America
are claiming to reform it so the point is moot?

Hello?

Please, for the love of all that is good and pure in our great
beloved nation, IMPEACH THE SON OF A BUSH NOW! Don't forget
to take the VP with him though!

It's not like this has no precident, they're pulling the same trash
with all the "enemy combatants" they have arrested and tortured
without any evidence or proof of anything improper.

If there is anything more anti-American than this administration,
I haven't seen it.
Posted by Dalkorian (3000 comments )
Reply Link Flag
 

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