The End Of Warrantless Wiretaps

There really is no other way to spin this story except to say that the Bush Administration has given in, there won’t be anymore warrantless wiretaps:

The Justice Department announced today that the National Security Agency’s controversial warrantless surveillance program has been placed under the authority of a secret surveillance court, marking an abrupt change in approach by the Bush administration after more than a year of heated debate.

In a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales said that orders issued on Jan. 10 by an unidentified judge puts the NSA program under the authority of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, a secret panel that oversees most intelligence surveillance in the United States.

Gonzales also wrote that the current NSA program will effectively be abandoned after its current authorization expires in favor of the new approach.

The change marks a dramatic turn of events for the Justice Department, which has strenuously argued for more than a year that the NSA spying program was legal and that the foreign intelligence court was poorly suited to oversee the program, as many lawmakers had advocated.

Following the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, President Bush authorized the NSA to monitor telephone calls and e-mail between the United States and overseas if one party to the communication was believed to be linked to al-Qaeda or related groups.

The program did not require any court oversight, prompting widespread objections from privacy advocates and many legal experts after the program was first revealed in news reports in December 2005. Bush and his aides strongly defended the legality and efficacy of the NSA spying initiative, which they dubbed the “Terrorist Surveillance Program.”

In his letter to lawmakers, Gonzales said a judge on the surveillance court issued orders “authorizing the government to target for collection international communications into or out of the United States where there is probable cause to believe” that one of the targets is a member of al-Qaeda or an associated group.

Hmm, so the Bush Administration has decided to follow the Fourth Amendment after all. Will wonders never cease.

Of course, as Kip points out, there isn’t any reason that this program couldn’t be continued in secret, but the difference now is that, if (and when) such a secret program were to become public, the spectacle of a n Administration evading the very oversight program it set up would be pretty embarrassing.

For the moment, I’ll chalk this one up as a victory for the Constitution.