WASHINGTON – The Bush administration has agreed to let a secret but independent panel of federal judges oversee the government's controversial domestic spying program, the Justice Department said Wednesday.
In a letter to the leaders of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court will have final say in approving wiretaps placed on people with suspected terror links.
"Any electronic surveillance that was occurring as part of the Terrorist Surveillance Program will now be conducted subject to the approval of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court," Gonzales wrote in the two-page letter to Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Arlen Specter, R-Pa.
"Accordingly, under these circumstances, the President has determined not to reauthorize the Terrorist Surveillance Program when the current authorization expires," the attorney general wrote.
The Bush administration secretly launched the surveillance program in 2001 to monitor international phone calls and e-mails to or from the United States involving people suspected by the government of having terrorist links.
The White House said it is satisfied with new guidelines the FISA court adopted on Jan. 10 to address administration officials' concerns about national security.
"The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has put together its guidelines and its rules and those have met administration concerns about speed and agility when it comes to responding to bits of intelligence where we may to be able to save American lives," White House press secretary Tony Snow said.
Snow said he could not explain why those concerns could not have been addressed before the program was started. He said the president will not reauthorize the present program because the new rules will serve as guideposts.
The secret panel of judges, known as the FISA court, was established in the late 1970s to review requests for warrants to conduct surveillance inside the United States. The Bush administration had resisted giving the court final approval over the Terrorist Surveillance Program, even when communications involved someone inside the country.
A federal judge in Detroit last August declared the program unconstitutional, saying it violates the rights to free speech and privacy and the separation of powers. In October, a three-judge panel of the Cincinnati-based appeals court ruled that the administration could keep the program in place while it appeals the Detroit decision.
Additionally, the Justice Department's inspector general is investigating the agency's use of information gathered in the spying program. In testimony last fall in front of the Senate panel, FBI Director Robert Mueller said he was not allowed to discuss classified details that could show whether it has curbed terrorist activity in the United States.
Congressional intelligence committees have already been briefed on the court's orders, Gonzales said in his letter. It was sent to the committee the day before he is set to testify before the panel, which oversees the Justice Department.