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A U-Turn On Warrantless Wiretaps

The US Government has decided to stop dropping in on quite as many peoples' phone conversations.
by Shaun Waterman
UPI Homeland and National Security Editor
Washington (UPI) Jan 18, 2007
In an astounding U-turn, the Bush administration says it will end its much-touted program of warrantless phone-taps of suspected terrorists, opting instead for secret orders from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court which would allow the monitoring to take place under judicial supervision and review.

In a one-and-a-half-page letter to lawmakers, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said that a judge from the secret court, set up by Congress to authorize electronic eavesdropping by U.S. spy agencies inside the country, had issued orders last week "authorizing the government to target for collection international communications into or out of the United States where there is probable cause to believe that one of the communicants is a member of al-Qaida or an associated terrorist organization."

He added that henceforth "any electronic surveillance that was occurring" under the National Security Agency's presidentially authorized Terrorist Surveillance Program "will now be conducted subject to the approval of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court."

As a result, he finished, the president had decided not to renew the current 45-day authorization for the program when it expires.

"The program continues," White House Spokesman Tony Snow told reporters later, "but it continues under the rules that have been laid out by the court."

The stunning turnaround came the same day as Gonzales, in a speech at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, urged the judiciary to show "deference" to the executive branch on matters of national security.

"I don't think the judiciary is equipped at all to make decisions about what's in the ... the national security interests of our country," he said. "They're not capable of doing that."

Senior Justice Department officials who briefed reporters Wednesday on condition of anonymity declined to elaborate about whether individual determinations of probable cause would be made under the orders or sho would make them.

I'm really am not in a position to describe the mechanics of the orders and to get into the details," said one, "Because it really does say something about the intelligence activities involved. But I will say that the probable-cause determinations we're talking about are subject to review and approval by the (court)."

The officials would not say whether the orders covered individual cases but denied that they provided some kind of blanket authorization for the program.

"These orders are not some sort of advisory opinion ruling on the program as a whole," said one. "These are orders that comply with the terms and requirements of the (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, which set the courts up), just like other orders issued by the court."

But he added the orders were special ones, "complex."

"... People have been working very hard on this for almost two years," the official said.

He said the orders "take advantage of the use of the FISA statute and developments in the law ... before the court," but added, "I can't really get into" what they might be.

"We take full advantage of all the relevant case law," continued the official, "That includes our own approach to the statute. That includes rulings from the FISA court. That includes significant precedents from the FISA court, (and) other related things."

Congressional critics of the program from both parties generally welcomed the news, but said it also demonstrated that they had been correct to contend that the wartime powers claimed by the administration as the legal basis for the program were unnecessary.

"The President could have and should have worked with the Congress," said Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman John Rockefeller, D-W.Va., "to fashion a surveillance program that was in compliance with all existing statutes."

Calling the move "a very significant first step," the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary committee, Arlen Specter, R-Penn., went on in a floor statement to complain it was "regrettable" that it had not been "taken a long time ago. I'd like to have an explanation as to why it took from last spring of 2005 ... when there has been such a public furor and public concern."

Officials would not say whether surveillance conducted under the program had to be modified in any way to gain the court's approval. "

A former senior federal official familiar with some aspects of the program told United Press International that the program had already been tweaked a number of times before.

"There was considerable study of the program and there were adjustments in as they went along," the official said, defending the program, and its legal basis, as "totally legitimate."

But he added it had been "ill-advised" to keep it from Congress. "That was a fundamental social and political error," said the official, and the political pressure it had generated had left the country in the wrong place vis--vis the program.

"The FISA court is not the right place" for oversight of the program, said the official. "They don't understand how the program works; they don't understand the limits of the technology."

The Justice Department officials urged Congress to move ahead with a modernization of FISA anyway, saying that even without the additional workload which would be imposed by the new orders, the court needed more streamlined procedures to avoid being overwhelmed.

"This is a very significant development that will likely very significantly increase the workload on the court," said one of the new orders. He said legislation was needed to "refine the scope of what the FISA Court needs to do in a way that will make it much more efficient and streamlined and will cut down significantly on the burden."

Rockefeller said he intended to move forward with the committee's review of the program, but complained its efforts "continue to be hampered by the administration's unwillingness to provide the committee with relevant documents," including a copy of the court's new orders, the legal briefs government lawyers had filed with the court, and the President's original authorization for the program.

"The president has decided that he will cooperate with the court to put this program on sounder legal footing," concluded Rockefeller. "I encourage him also to cooperate with the Congress to build the broad support that our counter-terrorism programs deserve."

earlier related report
Analysis: No-fly list will be cut in half
by Shaun Waterman - UPI Homeland and National Security Editor Washington (UPI) Jan 18 - The Transportation Security Administration has nearly completed a review of every name on its notorious no-fly list and has scrubbed nearly half of them, the agency's chief told lawmakers Wednesday.

"To assure the accuracy of the no-fly list itself, we will shortly conclude a case-by-case review of every name," agency Director Edmund "Kip" Hawley told a hearing of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee Wednesday.

"Working with our partners at the Terrorist Screening Center and in the intelligence community and law enforcement, this effort will effectively cut the no-fly list in half," he said.

He also said that it would be nearly two years before the agency was ready to begin deployment of its ill-starred Secure Flight system -- supposed to replace the airline-administered, name-based no-fly list with an online government-run system providing real-time access to federal databases of suspected terrorists.

In the latest in a long line of promises about Secure Flight, he said the system would be ready for deployment by New Year's Eve 2008, and maybe sooner, depending on how quickly officials could move forward the rule-making process.

Later he added that the review of the names on the no-fly list was expected to be completed "in the next couple of months," and that it would reduce it "to the bare minimum of people who really, really today represent the threat."

The no-fly list is prepared by officials at the Transportation Security Administration and the FBI-led multi-agency Terrorist Screening Center, based upon the single federal watch-list of known and suspected terrorists the center maintains.

It is one of two lists distributed by the Transportation Security Administration to the airlines, whose staff are the ones who actually administer the process. The other is the so-called "automatic selectee" list. Passengers on the no-fly list are not allowed to board an airplane; those on the selectee list will receive additional screening.

Federal officials told United Press International that a scrub of the much larger automatic selectee list would begin as soon as the no-fly list was finished.

They said the review began last year, after implementation guidance for the so-called nomination process -- by which the names of suspected terrorists and their associates are added to the list -- was redrafted.

New nominations were being added in line with the new guidance, but officials then had to go back over the list and scrub the names added previously against the new guidelines.

One official cautioned that the 50 percent figure was still just an estimate until the review was complete.

Hawley acknowledged that the review process would not solve the problems faced by passengers who had the same or similar name to those on one of his agency's lists. Airline procedures generally require people in that position to check-in in person.

In what has become a ritual that many lawmakers have enacted, Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Ala., the committee's former chairman and a legendary curmudgeon, teased Hawley about his personal experiences with the agency's name-based screening process.

Joking that he was "going to get shot when I get home tonight" for raising the issue, the senator said he and his wife were repeatedly stopped for additional scrutiny at airports because her name, Catherine Stevens, was similar to Cat Stevens, a name previously used by the singer Yussef Islam, who is on a U.S. watch-list because of his donations to Palestinian charities thought linked to Hamas.

Hawley replied aggrieved passengers could now get on the agency's so-called clear list, of individuals with similar names who are not on the no-fly list, through an expedited electronic process, within 10 days.

"The Catherine Stevens would tell us, and then we'd put a notation in the record that we send to the airlines that said, 'This is Catherine Stevens; she's not Cat Stevens, and don't hassle (her).'

"Unfortunately, it depends airline by airline how their individual systems work as to how effectively that's done," he said, adding the agency continued to work with the airlines on their matching technologies and ability to use the clear list.

But he said people in that situation would continue to be unable to check-in in advance. "Definitely we recognize the inconvenience. It hits people at kiosks printing boarding passes at home. But ... that's the cost to the watch list system we have now."

Officials later added that if only a few common names were removed, a lot of people might be saved inconvenience.

Hawley's dramatic announcement came the day the Department of Homeland Security rolled out a plan for a new "one stop shop" for people who are repeatedly selected for additional screening by border or airport security officials.

The Traveler Redress Inquiry Program will be launched on Feb. 20, the department said in a statement, and aims to "improve customer interface, facilitate information sharing among (homeland security) agencies that receive traveler redress requests and institute performance metrics to track progress."

The program "will serve as the central processing point for redress inquiries," the statement went on, routing them to the right department, and providing an online system where complainants can track the progress of their inquiry.

Source: United Press International

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Cell Phone Cams Exposing Torture
Washington (UPI) Jan 16, 2007
Human rights groups have long complained against the use of torture in Egypt, a fact consistently denied by the Egyptian government. But a video recording made with a cell phone camera and posted on the Internet for the world to see places the government of President Hosni Mubarak in an embarrassing position.

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