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US Terrorist Surveillance Program Put Under Special Court

Big changes are being made in a highly controversial domestic surveillance program launched by the Bush administration after the September 11, 2001 terror attacks on the United States. VOA's Paula Wolfson has details from the White House.

The program began as a secret weapon in the war on terror.

After the September 11 attacks, President Bush gave the intelligence community the ability to monitor communications to and from the United States involving people suspected of terrorist ties without first getting approval from a special surveillance court.

When news reports revealed the existence of the program, it quickly became the source of controversy. Critics said without court involvement to guard against abuses, the program amounted to a violation of individual privacy rights, as well as the Constitutional guarantee against unreasonable searches and seizures.

The president said these wiretaps had to be placed quickly, and there was no time to wait for court approval. Now, the Justice Department says a way has been found to handle those concerns.

In letters to the leaders of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales announced the Terrorist Surveillance Program will not be re-authorized by the president in its present form. He said there will be no more wiretaps without court warrants. Instead the special security court - formally known as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court - will have the last say.

At the White House, spokesman Tony Snow said the secret court - made up of experienced members of the judiciary - has drafted a set of rules that will enable it to act quickly and issue the necessary orders. He said the White House is sure the new guidelines meet its concerns about national security.

"The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has put together its guidelines and its rules and those have met administration concerns about speed and agility when it comes to responding to bits of intelligence where we may be able to save American lives." said Tony Snow.

Snow explained that the special court has been working on drafting the guidelines for about two years. When asked why that fact - which could have quieted the controversy - was not announced sooner, Snow cited the unique nature of this court.

"The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court does not like to have its business discused in public." he said. "And only because of the public revelation of the Terrorist Surveillance Program are we announcing this at this juncture."

On Capitol Hill, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee welcomed the move to put the Terrorist Surveillance Program under court jurisdiction. Democrat Patrick Leahy said he has been calling for such action since the existence of the program first became known.

"The issue has never been whether to monitor suspected terrorists, but doing it legally and with proper checks and balances to prevent abuses," said Patrick Leahy. "Providing efficient but meaningful court review is a major step toward addressing those concerns."

The top Republican on the Judiciary panel, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania also addressed the issue on the Senate floor.

"At least there is a very significant first step," he said. "It is regrettable that these steps were not taken a long time ago."

Senator Specter said he still has a lot of questions about the guidelines the special court will use in considering requests for wiretaps. He will get his chance to ask those questions on Thursday when Attorney General Gonzales testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee.