Bush drops NSA warrantless spying ops

Questions remain about exactly how FISA Court-approved wiretaps would work.
Written by Richard Koman, Contributor

The Bush administration has given up on the warantless eavesdropping program run by the National Security Agency. From now on, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales said, the secret FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) court will oversee eavesdropping operations, The Washington Post reports.

Under the new plan, the FISA court will issue warrants when "there is probable cause to believe" that one of the parties is a member of al-Qaeda or an associated terrorist group.

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.

But how will the new program work exactly? That's far from clear.

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.

The change is cleaerly a victory for Democrats, but some congressional representatives complain the new version still doesn't go far enough to allay concerns about due process and privacy.

Rep. Heather A. Wilson (R-N.M.), a member of the House intelligence panel, also referred to the new approach as "programmatic approval" and said it "does not have the protections for civil liberties" in FISA or in a bill she introduced last year.
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