It's hard to know what to make of this just yet, but the Bush administration has apparently decided that spying it was conducting without warrants under the so-called Terrorist Surveillance Program will now be "conducted subject to the approval of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court."
In a letter to the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales says that a FISA judge issued orders last week under which the government may monitor communications into or out of the United States if there is probable cause to believe that at least one party to the communication is a "member or agent" of al-Qaida or an "associated terrorist organization."
Gonzales says in the letter that the orders will allow the government to act with the "speed and agility" it needs -- speed and agility it said it couldn't get before, despite the fact that FISA always allowed the government to get after-the-fact warrants for emergency surveillance. In light of the orders, Gonzales says, Bush has "determined not to reauthorize the Terrorist Surveillance Program when the current authorization expires."
Is this the Bush administration backtracking or the Bush administration further empowered by the FISA court? That's the part that's a little hard to figure out right now. For what it's worth, Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller, the new chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, just told Salon's Michael Scherer that if what he's hearing about the administration's new plan is true, it resolves "most of" the problems Democrats had with the Terrorist Surveillance Program.
Update: Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy just issued a statement in which he says he welcomes Bush's decision to "seek approval for all wiretaps from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, as the law has required for years." "The issue has never been whether to monitor suspected terrorists but doing it legally and with proper checks and balances to prevent abuses," Leahy says in the statement. "Providing efficient but meaningful court review is a major step toward addressing those concerns."
Sen. Chuck Schumer takes a significantly different tone in a statement of his own, saying that Bush's decision "flies in the face of the fundamentals of American justice, which, when the balance of power is divided, require that these things should be done with full debate, and with full review." Schumer says the Gonzales announcement "can give little solace to the American people, who believe in the rule of law and ask for adequate judicial review. And why it took five years to go to even this secret court is beyond comprehension."