Does it matter that Democrats took charge of the Senate this month?
George Bush seems to think so.
In a letter sent today to Senate Judiciary Committee leaders, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales writes that, “the president has determined not to reauthorize the Terrorist Surveillance Program when the current authorization expires.
“Any electronic surveillance that was occurring as part of the Terrorist Surveillance Program will now be conducted subject to the approval of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court,” explains the attorney general’s letter.
The FISA Court was created by Congress in 1978 with the specific intent that it would supervise electronic eavesdropping within the United States. But the Bush administration, which launched its spying program in 2001, had until today refused to obey the court’s authority.
When it was learned late in 2005 that Bush had repeatedly authorized the monitoring of the phone conversations and emails of Americans, the president and his lawyers claimed that the White House did not need to consult with FISA courts before engaging in such surveillance.
With Pennsylvania Republican Arlen Specter, a somewhat critical but cautious player, in charge of the Judiciary Committee, the administration showed no inclination to seek proper authorization.
But Specter lost his chairmanship when Democrats took charge of the Senate after the November 7 elections.
With Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy, a critic of warrantless wiretapping, now in charge of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and with Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold, who proposed censuring the president for failing to obtain proper authorization for his surveillance program, now in charge of the Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, the White House has suddenly developed a newfound respect for the rule of law.
This is not the end of the story, however. The Congress still needs to investigate whether the warrantless wiretapping program was used to monitor not merely terrorist threats but domestic dissent.
While there is much to celebrate in the administration’s change of course, Feingold is right in his assessment. “For more than five years, the President has conducted an illegal program, including more than a year during which he publicly asserted that this violation of the law was absolutely essential to protecting the public from terrorists. I am pleased that the President has been forced to return to the law and that this program has been terminated,” the senator says.