US DOJ: Surveillance program now court-approved

NSA wiretapping program to be replaced by a FISA program that requires court approval

A controversial surveillance program to wiretap telephone and Internet communications in and out of the U.S. will now fall under the jurisdiction of a U.S. court, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) said Wednesday.

A judge with the secret U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA) on Jan. 10 authorized the U.S. government to wiretap phone or Internet communications involving suspected members of al Qaeda or other terrorist organizations, the DOJ said. The FISA-approved surveillance would replace the Terrorist Surveillance Program at the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA), authorized by U.S. President George Bush in 2002 to create wiretaps without court-issued warrants.

The FISA ruling will allow the surveillance program to essentially continue as it has, only with court approval, a senior DOJ official said. Under the NSA program, U.S. agents were allowed to wiretap Internet and telephone communications into and out of the U.S. in which one participant was suspected to be linked to al Qaeda.

Civil liberties groups had protested the NSA program, saying its lack of court oversight violated the U.S. Constitution. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has filed a lawsuit against AT&T for allegedly participating in the NSA program, and in August, a U.S. district judge in Michigan ruled the NSA program was illegal. 

Bush is "committed to using all lawful tools to protect our nation from the terrorist threat," U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales wrote in a Wednesday letter to members of the U.S. Congress. "Although ... the Terrorist Surveillance Program fully complies with the law, the orders the government has obtained will allow the necessary speed and agility while providing substantial advantages," Gonzales wrote.

Bush will not reauthorize the old NSA program when it expires sometime in the next 45 days, the senior DOJ official, who requested anonymity, said Wednesday. But the FISA-authorized program will have the same capability as the old program, the official said.

The FISA court will approve wiretap requests for 90 days at a time, the DOJ official said. The court will have authority to review individual wiretap requests, but the DOJ official declined to provide specific information about how the FISA program will work.

Bush administration officials denied that the FISA court acted to provide political and legal cover for the NSA program, but the DOJ official said the FISA ruling will allow Congress to step back and look at the wiretap program without legal questions hanging over it. The FISA ruling "should take some of the political heat off the debate," the DOJ official said.

The EFF didn't have an immediate comment on the FISA decision.

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