Washington In a policy reversal, President Bush has agreed to sign legislation allowing a secret federal court to assess the constitutionality of his warrantless domestic eavesdropping program, a senior Republican senator announced Thursday.
By having the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court conduct the review instead of a regular federal court, the Bush administration would ensure the secrecy of details of the highly classified program. The administration has argued that making details of the program public would compromise national security.
However, such details could include politically explosive disclosures that the government has kept tabs on people it shouldn't have been monitoring.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., who's questioned the program's legality, said the legislation he's sponsoring strikes a balance between the president's inherent constitutional authority to protect the country and citizens' right to privacy.
"It is a weighing of the interests in security to fight terrorism with the privacy interests which are involved," Specter said. "You have here a recognition by the president that he doesn't have a blank check."
Specter said the FISA court wouldn't have to make its findings public.
Bush agreed to sign the bill only if it passed Congress without major changes, Specter said.
The bill was the result of weeks of negotiations between Specter and the White House.
Atty. Gen. Alberto Gonzales welcomed the measure, saying it "recognizes the president's constitutional authority to gather up information."
Civil liberties groups called the measure a ruse designed to keep Congress and the public in the dark about the full extent of what they condemned as an illegal program run by the National Security Agency, which conducts electronic eavesdropping.
"Senator Specter's proposal would set up a sham judicial review," charged Kate Martin, the director of the Center for National Security Studies. "It gives them a blank check and legal cover for what they have been doing."
Lee Tien, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties group that's suing AT&T over its cooperation with the NSA program, called the bill "terrible" in part because it provides no opportunity for outside attorneys to contest the program's legality before FISA court.
"This bill says nothing about how any outsider or the folks that we represent would have any kind of a voice in this," he said. "It's almost alien to the concept of judicial review in this country."
The NSA has been monitoring overseas telephone and Internet communications of Americans suspected of supporting or belonging to al-Qaida or other terrorist groups without court orders since just after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.