WASHINGTON - President Bush has decided not to renew a program of domestic spying on terrorism suspects, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said today, ending an law-enforcement tactic criticised for infringing on civil liberties.
"The president has determined not to reauthorise the Terrorist Surveillance Program when the current authorisation expires," Gonzales wrote in a letter to congressional leaders.
Bush has reauthorised the program every 45 days, and the current authorisation is mid-cycle, a senior Justice Department official said. Gonzales said a recent secret-court approval allowed the government to act effectively without the program.
The program, adopted after the September 11 attacks, allowed the government to eavesdrop on the international phone calls and emails of US citizens without a warrant, if those wire taps were made to track suspected al Qaeda operatives.
Critics have said the program violated the US Constitution and a 1978 law, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which made it illegal to spy on US citizens in the United States without the approval of the special surveillance court.
"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," Gonzales said.
Gonzales said a judge on the secret FISA court recently approved a government proposal allowing it to target communications into and out of the United States when probable cause exists that one person is a member of al Qaeda or an associated terrorist organisation.
He reiterated the administration's position that the surveillance program has been legal, but said the government will now have the ability to act with sufficient "speed and agility."
White House spokesman Tony Snow said the new rules approved by the court addressed administration concerns.
"The president will not reauthorise the present program because the new rules will serve as guideposts," Snow said.
Gonzales' letter came the day before he was scheduled to appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee, where the Democrats now in power were expected to question him closely about the much-criticised program.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat and the judiciary committee's chairman, said Bush's decision will provide efficient and meaningful court review.
"We must engage in all surveillance necessary to prevent acts of terrorism, but we can and should do so in ways that protect the basic rights of all Americans including the right to privacy," he said.
Sen. Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat and a judiciary committee member, said, "Why it took five years to go to even this secret court is beyond comprehension."
Last year a federal judge in Detroit ordered the Bush administration to stop the surveillance because it violates Americans' civil rights.
US District Judge Anna Diggs Taylor said the program violated a constitutional check on the power of the presidency and said there "are no hereditary kings in America and no powers not created by the Constitution."
The Bush administration has appealed the ruling to a federal appeals court, where the case is pending.
Gonzales said the administration began exploring options for seeking FISA court approval for the program in the spring of 2005, well before it was publicly disclosed at the end of that year, creating a firestorm of criticism.
He did not give details of the court's orders.