WASHINGTON—Attorney General Alberto Gonzales Wednesday turned over to key legislators copies of a secret court's "highly classified" orders spelling out how the administration has stopped wiretapping suspected terrorists without warrants and is now spying with judicial supervision.
Gonzales disclosed the decision, which averts a confrontation that might have brought congressional subpoenas, during a news briefing at the Justice Department.
The classified documents lay out details of a secret arrangement approved by a judge on an 11-member national security court that puts the spying program under its jurisdiction. The material was delivered to members of the House and Senate intelligence committees late in the day, congressional aides said.
The documents also will be made available to Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, the panel's ranking Republican, both of whom have asked to review the new arrangement.
Leahy, Specter and members of the intelligence committees have voiced concern that the eavesdropping on some Americans' overseas phone calls and e-mails may have violated their constitutional rights. Leahy and Specter praised President Bush for granting their requests to review details of the latest arrangement.
"The president has made the right decision in changing his previous course of unilaterally reauthorizing the warrantless surveillance program, to now following the law by seeking court approval for these wiretaps," Leahy said.
But he said he would "have to look at the court's order to determine whether the administration has reached that proper balance to protect Americans while following the law."
Specter called the move "a significant step forward" but said he would reserve judgment until he had reviewed the documents.
Those include Justice Department applications for what administration officials have described as a complicated arrangement to expedite the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court's approval of electronic surveillance on American citizens' overseas phone calls and e-mails. The court was created under a 1978 law to approve warrants in espionage and terrorism investigations.
The administration has said it's eavesdropping only if one party to the communication is likely to be affiliated with al-Qaida or an associated terrorist group.
Gonzales said that the documents being released detail "highly classified activities" and must remain secret because their public disclosure "may jeopardize the national security of our country." He said that other documents on the program are "especially sensitive," and it's still not clear whether they'll be given to Congress.
The National Security Agency started the surveillance program shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and ran it for years without warrants or judicial review and in apparent violation of constitutional protections. The New York Times disclosed the program in December 2005, provoking an outcry from civil libertarians and others.
After a federal judge in Detroit ruled the program illegal last summer and Democrats seized control of Congress, Gonzales disclosed in January that the Justice Department had worked out an arrangement under which the FISA court would oversee the program. Justice Department officials said the new arrangement was under way for some time and was unrelated to an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit that led to a court injunction halting the program or to the Democrats' election victory.
A panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments Wednesday on the government's petition for dismissal of U.S. District Judge Anna Diggs Taylor's ruling last August ordering the government to halt the surveillance program because it was unconstitutional. Administration lawyers argued that that case is now moot, because the surveillance is now under the jurisdiction of the national security court.
But lawyers for the ACLU, representing 10 groups and individuals that contend that they have had to arrange secret meetings to communicate with overseas associates because of the wiretaps, said the case cannot be moot because the administration claims that Bush still has the power to conduct the surveillance without warrants.
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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