The Bush administration has agreed to shift course and let a secret but independent panel of federal judges oversee the government's controversial domestic spying program.
The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court will have final say in approving wiretaps on communications involving people with suspected terror links, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said Wednesday in a letter to the leaders of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
As you know, this is a one-hundred and eighty degree about face from the Bush administration's previous position, that surveillance could be conducted on persons inside the United States without the benefit of a warrant. The program had faced staunched criticism and a variety of legal attacks ever since it's existence was leaked to the public, and in August a federal judge declared the program unconstitutional. The government appealed the case, but this reversal has more to do with changes in political fortune than anything else. Democratic members of Congress were lining up to take a hard look at the program in the wake of the mid-term successes. The Bush administration, seeing the writing on the wall, has decided to make an attempt to forestall just such an investigation by returning the authority to approve of surveillance schemes back to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (whether such an attempt will be successful remains to be seen.) Regardless, the illegal NSA domestic surveillance program is now dead.
UPDATE: Will this change forestall Congressional investigation? House Intelligence Committee Chair Silvestre Reyes is not yet mollified (Marty Lederman, via Glenn Greenwald, who I also recommend for several other tidbits regarding this announcment):
This announcement does not end our Committee’s interest in this matter. Until our Committee has the opportunity to review the Court orders and conduct in-depth oversight over this program, I am withholding judgment on whether it is effective and whether it protects the rights of the American people.