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Secret Court Will Oversee Spying Program
By Robert Schmidt and James Rowley
January 17, 2007

Jan. 17 (Bloomberg) -- The Bush administration, after a year of refusing to allow outside supervision of its domestic eavesdropping program, agreed to seek approval for the electronic surveillance from a secret federal court.

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales disclosed the change in a letter today to leaders of the Senate Judiciary Committee. He said the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court last week issued orders approving Justice Department requests for eavesdropping under the program, which previously had bypassed judicial oversight.

"As a result of these orders, any electronic surveillance that was occurring as part of the Terrorist Surveillance Program will now be conducted subject to the approval" of the court, Gonzales wrote.

He said the Justice Department had been "exploring options" for judicial oversight since early 2005. Still, his announcement comes as Democrats, highly critical of the program, have taken power in both houses of Congress pledging greater oversight of the administration's conduct of the war on terror.

President George W. Bush spent a year defending the legality of the spying since it was disclosed in December 2005. The program, established in 2001 after the Sept. 11 attacks, allows monitoring of international communications into or out of the U.S. when one of the parties is tied to al-Qaeda.

Congressional Resolution

Bush has said he had power to conduct the surveillance under a congressional resolution authorizing the war on terror and under his constitutional role as commander-in-chief. In his letter today, Gonzales said Bush wouldn't renew the program, instead letting the court review requests for surveillance.

White House Press Secretary Tony Snow said today the administration is satisfied the change won't sacrifice "speed and agility when it comes to responding to bits of intelligence where you may be able to save American lives."

Some lawmakers and administration officials said permitting court oversight of the program may defuse tensions on Capitol Hill. Gonzales will testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee tomorrow.

"If it happens to be true, it solves most of our problems," said Jay Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat and the new chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. The shift in policy suggests "a rather large inconsistency with what the administration said" months ago, he added.

Justice Department Briefing

The Justice Department briefed both the House and Senate intelligence committees on the change several days ago and plans to brief Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, and the panel's senior Republican, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, shortly, officials said.

"It appears they have done a complete back flip," Leahy said. "But, if they are doing a back flip toward following the law, that's a lot better than their original position."

The announcement is "good news, it will help keep the country safe," said Senator Pat Roberts, a Kansas Republican and former Intelligence Committee chairman. Roberts said the change should eliminate any need for Congress to pass legislation concerning the program.

International Communications

In his letter today, Gonzales said the surveillance court issued orders Jan. 10 "authorizing the government to target for collection international communications into or out of the United States where there is a probable cause to believe that" one of the parties is "a member or agent of al-Qaeda or an associated terrorist organization."

The attorney general didn't give details of the court's orders. A senior Justice Department official, speaking on background to a group of reporters, said the court approved more than one order allowing monitoring for 90 days. He also declined to be more specific.

The court, created by a 1978 law, meets in secret at the Justice Department's Washington headquarters and has authority to approve government eavesdropping of U.S. citizens linked to a foreign power.

To contact the reporter on this story: Robert Schmidt in Washington at rschmidt5@bloomberg.net ; James Rowley at jarowley@bloomberg.net
Last Updated: January 17, 2007 16:59 EST

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