Bush Retreats on Illegal Domestic Wiretapping

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(APN) ATLANTA — The Bush Administration announced yesterday it will abandon the warrantless surveillance program operated by the National Security Agency (NSA), Atlanta Progressive News has learned.

The reversal comes just one day before US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales was to begin testifying before the new Democratic-majority Congress on the illegal program.

A new plan calls for the secret court that administers the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) to approve any request made by the government to spy on a suspected terrorist, according to The Washington Post newspaper.

US Attorney General Alberto Gonzales sent a letter to the US Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and the US Senate Judiciary Committee outlining this shocking policy reversal from the Bush White House.

Previously, intelligence officers approved any communication intercepts without any intervention from courts or judges.

Now, the secret court will oversee any taps on phone calls or spying on e-mails to and from the United States when “there is probable cause to believe” one person involved in the communication is a member of al-Qaeda or another terrorist group.

While Democrats are pleased with this policy change, it appears many are not going to abandon their quest to determine the origin and legality of the NSA surveillance program.

APN obtained two statements on this matter from prominent Congressional Democrats.

US Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-NY) has made a tireless effort in calling for multiple US Department of Justice (USDOJ) investigations into the origin and legality of the NSA program.

“I do not think we should ignore the fact that the Bush administration’s decision seems to be contrary to everything they have been telling us since we found out about this program,” Hinchey declares in his January 17, 2007, statement.

“This sudden reversal makes me wonder whether some in the Bush administration finally realize, as I have asserted all along, that the warrantless surveillance program is in fact illegal and unconstitutional,” Hinchey continues.

He concludes, “In light of today’s news, I am even more determined to find out the answers about the program’s origin, evolution, and legality.”

US Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) weighed in on the issue with her January 17, 2007 statement. “I continue to have many questions about what the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has decided and intend to scrutinize carefully how the Court has interpreted the FISA statute.”

The Senator concludes, “While I welcome the decision to stop conducting surveillance without judicial approval, the president now needs to respond fully to legitimate congressional questions about the complete history of this now-terminated illegal program.”

US Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-WV) told reporters the Senate Intelligence Committee, of which he is the Chair, still intends to investigate the program’s legality and effectiveness.

The public first learned of the NSA program in December 2005 from The New York Times newspaper, and for the next 13 months, the Bush Administration defended the program as not only completely legal but also absolutely necessary for national security.

President Bush issued a secret order in October 2001 authorizing the program.

Democrats and privacy advocates argued Wednesday this reversal is the White House’s way of admitting defeat on the issue.

Upon learning about the new plan, the USDOJ also filed a notice with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit informing the panel of the new plan and promised to file papers “addressing the implications of this development” on ongoing litigation, according to The Post.

APN reported in December the USDOJ Inspector General had opened a program review to determine what role the USDOJ played in the NSA wiretapping program.

The review, which is ongoing, “will examine the USDOJ’s controls and use of information related to the surveillance program and the agency’s compliance with legal requirements governing the surveillance program,” according to the December 19, 2006, story.

Inspector General Glenn A. Fine finally opened the review after US Reps. Hinchey and Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), along with other Democratic colleagues, spent most of 2006 appealing to several agencies to call for a thorough and complete investigation of the NSA wiretapping program.

Hinchey and Lofgren feel the review is a step in the right direction but is not close to the full investigation they are calling for.

Congress did not act last year on two proposals introduced that would have authorized the surveillance.

Gonzales wrote in his letter that a member of the secret FISA court issued an order on January 10, 2007, putting the NSA program under the secret court’s authority.

The Bush Administration had argued placing the NSA program under the FISA court’s authority would be slow, but USDOJ officials released statistics Wednesday showing improvements in the time it takes to obtain intelligence warrants, according to The Post.

There are portions of the new approach that are still unclear. It is unknown if the Administration will have to seek a warrant for every individual or if the secret court has issued a set of orders to cover several cases at once.

It is also unclear how many court orders are at hand or which member of the secret court issued them.

Officials from the White House and USDOJ told reporters that President Bush still believes he has constitutional authority to order warrantless surveillance on international calls.

The president issued orders every 45 days to renew the program but will not do so when the current term expires. The FISA court will now issue orders that will last 90 days, according to an official who spoke to reporters on background.

The same official said the Administration hopes the new plan will slow Congress in their attempt to hold hearings on the NSA program. “This should remove or take away the heat or need for such a debate,” the official said.

About the author:

Jonathan Springston is a Senior Staff Writer for Atlanta Progressive News. He may be reached at jonathan@atlantaprogressivenews.com

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This article may be reprinted in full at no cost where Atlanta Progressive News is credited.

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