Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales yesterday said that an independent court will monitor Justice Department intercepts of international calls involving terror suspects in this country, allowing independent oversight of President Bush’s domestic surveillance program.
In a letter to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, and the panel’s ranking Republican, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, Mr. Gonzales said that the department had agreed to let the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court oversee the program and that the court already had approved one request.
Mr. Gonzales said an order establishing the court’s oversight was issued Jan. 10 and gives the department, which conducts the program through the National Security Agency (NSA), the “necessary speed and agility while providing substantial advantages.”
The move is a major concession for Mr. Bush, who since the program was publicly disclosed in 2005, has argued he did not need — or want — to use the special intelligence court.
White House press secretary Tony Snow yesterday said it was the court that changed its procedures, which is what made the new arrangement possible.
But members of Congress and others wondered why the White House could not have simply proposed these changes itself a year ago.
“Since this program was first revealed, I have urged this administration to inform Congress what the government is doing and to comply with the checks and balances Congress wrote into law,” Mr. Leahy said. “We must engage in all surveillance necessary to prevent acts of terrorism, but we can and should do so in ways that protect the basic rights of all Americans, including the right to privacy.”
Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat and a Judiciary Committee member, said the decision to give the court the authority to monitor the surveillance program “flies in the face of the fundamentals of American justice.”
He said the decision should have come after the matter was fully and openly debated.
“This announcement can give little solace to the American people, who believe in the rule of law and ask for adequate judicial review,” he said. “And why it took five years to go to even this secret court is beyond comprehension.”
Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, called the announcement “a quintessential flip-flop.”
“The NSA was operating illegally and this 11th-hour ploy is clearly an effort to avoid judicial and congressional scrutiny,” he said. “Despite this adroit back flip, the constitutional problems with the president’s actions remain unaddressed.”
The surveillance program had secretly given law-enforcement authorities the ability to monitor international phone calls and e-mails to or from the United States involving people suspected by the government of having terrorist links.
The Bush administration had vigorously defended the legality of the program, saying it would be impossible to obtain warrants in time to intercept international phone calls of those suspected of belonging to al Qaeda to and from the United States.
Mr. Gonzales is scheduled to testify today before the Senate Judiciary Committee, where he has come under fire from Democrats and Republicans over his refusal to release documents detailing the program.
Charles Hurt contributed to this article.