Bush Administration Submits Domestic Surveillance Program to FISA Court
The Bush administration publicly announced today that its controversial program of warrantless wiretapping of telephone calls and emails involving American citizens will be turned over to the court established by the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Act (i.e., the FISA Court) for supervision. Bush will cease signing orders every 45 days reauthorizing the program, as he had been doing.
This is an enormously significant change of position for the White House, which has adamantly proclaimed its authority to conduct the program without court supervision since the New York Times broke the story of the program's existence one year ago. As far as I can recall, the Bush administration has never before yielded on any of its anti-terror initiatives that have been challenged on civil rights grounds, except as compelled by adverse rulings in the U.S. Supreme Court.
UPDATE: Postpone the celebration. The court supervision may not be all one could wish. In today's New York Times, Rep. Heather Wilson (R-NM) disputes the White House claim that key legislators had been briefed on this change, and also indicates that the FISA court may have granted blanket rather than case-by-case supervision, and it sounds like Democrats are suspicious and intend to keep the pressure on:
Ms. Wilson, who has scrutinized the program for the last year, said she believed the new approach relied on a blanket, “programmatic” approval of the president’s surveillance program, rather than approval of individual warrants.
Administration officials “have convinced a single judge in a secret session, in a nonadversarial session, to issue a court order to cover the president’s terrorism surveillance program,” Ms. Wilson said in a telephone interview. She said Congress needed to investigate further to determine how the program is run.
Democrats have pledged to investigate the N.S.A. program and other counterterrorism programs they say may rely on excessive presidential authority. Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York said the announcement appeared to be intended in part to head off criticism Mr. Gonzales was likely to face at Thursday’s judiciary committee hearing.
“I don’t think the timing is coincidental,” Mr. Schumer said in a telephone interview. “They knew they had a very real problem, and they’re trying to deflect it.”