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.
This was a highly controversial program in which Americans suspected of ties to terrorism could have their phone calls or email monitored without any oversight from a judge, reports CBS News chief White House correspondent Jim Axelrod.
"The White House knew it would get its legal butt kicked either by Congress or the courts if it would have pursued the program the way it had been operating, so now at least the administration can say it is cooperating with Congress and within the purview of the law," says CBS News legal analyst Andrew Cohen. "It's a political solution to what was becoming a growing legal problem for President Bush."
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.
"I am sure there are a lot of civil libertarians out there who are disappointed that the program, as it was operating, won't come under scrutiny by a Democratic Congress or the U.S. Supreme Court," adds Cohen, "because the program almost certainly would have been declared unconstitutional. What this move does it preempt that legal battle, at least for now."
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.