Correction to This Article
A Jan. 18 article incorrectly said that the order placing the government¿s domestic spying program under the review of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court was signed by one of that court¿s rotating judges who was handling its cases the week of Jan. 10. That judge did not sign the order. It is unclear which judge did.

Court Will Oversee Wiretap Program

Change Does Not Settle Qualms About Privacy

Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 18, 2007; Page A01

The Bush administration said yesterday that it has agreed to disband a controversial warrantless surveillance program run by the National Security Agency, replacing it with a new effort that will be overseen by the secret court that governs clandestine spying in the United States.

The change -- revealed by Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales in a letter to the leaders of the Senate Judiciary Committee -- marks an abrupt reversal by the administration, which for more than a year has aggressively defended the legality of the NSA surveillance program and disputed court authority to oversee it.

Under the new plan, Gonzales said, the secret court that administers the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, will oversee eavesdropping on telephone calls and e-mails to and from the United States when "there is probable cause to believe" that one of the parties is a member of al-Qaeda or an associated terrorist group.

Under the previous approach, such intercepts were authorized by intelligence officers without the involvement of any court or judge -- prompting objections from privacy advocates and many Democrats that the program was illegal.

Administration officials suggested that the move was aimed in part at quelling persistent objections to the NSA spying by Democrats who now control Congress and that it is intended to slow or even derail challenges making their way through the federal courts. The Justice Department immediately filed a notice with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit yesterday informing the panel of the new program and promising to file papers "addressing the implications of this development" on pending litigation.

Some Justice officials also said that receiving approval from the secret court will enable authorities to more easily use the information they obtain in future criminal prosecutions.

But many details of the new approach remained unclear yesterday, because administration officials declined to describe specifically how the program will work.

Officials would not say, for example, whether the administration will be required to seek a warrant for each person it wants to monitor or whether the FISA court has issued a broader set of orders to cover multiple cases. Authorities also would not say how many court orders are involved or which judge on the surveillance court had issued them.

One official familiar with the discussions characterized the change as "programmatic," rather than based on warrants targeting specific cases. This official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the judge who issued the Jan. 10 order was not U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, the FISA panel's chief judge, but rather one of that court's rotating members who was assigned to hear cases that week.

President Bush first issued a secret order in October 2001 authorizing the NSA to monitor telephone calls and e-mail between the United States and overseas if one party was thought to be linked to al-Qaeda or related groups. The initiative, revealed publicly by the New York Times in December 2005, was later dubbed the "Terrorist Surveillance Program" by the administration.

Many Democrats and privacy advocates who had questioned the legality of the program argued yesterday that the administration had effectively conceded defeat by agreeing to place its surveillance efforts under the secret judicial panel whose members approve wiretaps and searches under FISA.

"The issue has never been whether to monitor suspected terrorists but doing it legally and with proper checks and balances to prevent abuses," said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. "Providing efficient but meaningful court review is a major step toward addressing those concerns."


CONTINUED     1           >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company