Bush administration says eavesdropping will have some judicial oversight.

Bush administration says eavesdropping will have some judicial oversight.

Bush administration says eavesdropping will have some judicial oversight.

A summary of what's in the major U.S. newspapers.
Jan. 18 2007 6:12 AM

Not So Secret

The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and USA Todaylead, and the Wall Street Journal tops its worldwide newsbox, with news that the Bush administration will give a secret court jurisdiction over a National Security Agency program that eavesdrops on international telephone calls of Americans who are suspected of having terrorist ties. In a letter to congressional leaders, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales announced the surprising move and declared that from now on the secret court that administers the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act will be overseeing the wiretapping. The move comes after the White House has spent more than a year insisting the program is legal and essential to fighting terrorism.

The Washington Postleads with, and the LAT fronts, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki declaring that if the United States were to speed up the process of equipping and arming Iraqi security forces, U.S. troops wouldn't be needed as much, and some could go home within three to six months. It also seems Maliki has taken a page out of the Bush administration playbook and said that criticism of his administration from the president and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice "give[s] morale boosts for the terrorists and push them toward making an extra effort and making them believe they have defeated the American administration."

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All the papers remind readers that the warrantless eavesdropping program was first revealed by the NYT in December 2005. But in his letter, Gonzales assures lawmakers the administration's review of the program started in the spring of 2005, "well before the first press account disclosing the existence of the Terrorist Surveillance Program." So what took so long? Apparently there was a lot of discussion.

Others are skeptical and point out that the move comes at a time when the program was under increased scrutiny from recently empowered Democrats and federal courts. Oh yes, and Gonzales is scheduled to appear before the Senate judiciary committee today. But regardless of the change, Gonzalez, along with other administration officials, insists they were not breaking the law when they carried out the warrantless spying. Of course, others disagree and say Congress should still investigate the program.

But wait, what does this announcement mean? How will the secret court oversee the program? Short answer: No one seems to know. Administration officials aren't telling and the papers have different people telling them different things. It is unclear whether the administration found a friendly judge who gave a blanket approval to the program or whether it will have to seek individual approval each time it wants to eavesdrop. The LAT quotes Rep. Jane Harman, formerly the ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee, who said, "the bottom line here is they will have to get individualized warrants if they want to listen to the communications of Americans in America." Meanwhile, the NYT talks to Republican Rep. Heather A. Wilson of New Mexico, who says that as far as she knows the administration "convinced a single judge in a secret session … to issue a court order to cover the president's terrorism surveillance program."

Now, this seems like a basic issue that should be known. Why isn't anyone talking? After all, Gonzales will be asked the questions tomorrow, right? TP's take on the matter: The administration wanted all of today's papers to have headlines like "Court Will Oversee Wiretap Program" ( WP) and "U.S. Ceases Warrantless Spy Operation" ( LAT). Those are the main messages that will stick with the public, and then when more details come out as lawmakers seek answers, they won't be on Page One.

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Side note: When Harman talked about how the courts would have to issue separate warrants for each case, she emphasized she wasn't "talking about people who are not Americans or U.S. persons." She refused to elaborate, citing that the information is classified, but the LAT wisely points out that it seems to imply the government could continue its warrantless eavesdropping if it were targeting someone who is not considered a "U.S. person."

In a prescient editorial, USAT points out that regardless of these changes the government can still get information about Americans without a court order using National Security Letters (Slate's Dahlia Lithwick and Julia Turner examined what they called "National Insecurity-Complex Letters" in 2005). On Sunday, the NYT revealed the CIA is using these letters along with the FBI to get information about American citizens. "Unlike the warrantless wiretapping program, these letters don't violate any laws, though perhaps they should," says USAT.

Also mentioned in the top spot of the WSJ's news box is word from the Department of Homeland Security that it will review the terror watch list for travelers and would probably cut it in half. In addition, an appeals process will be put in place so people can appeal their inclusion on the list.

In his chat with reporters, Maliki emphasized his government will go after anyone who is causing violence in Iraq, including Shiite militias. The Iraqi prime minister also said that in recent days 400 members of the Mahdi Army, the militia led by Muqtada Sadr, had been arrested, and the NYT fronts the announcement. The Post is alone in reporting that a Sadr spokesman denied the arrests had taken place. But the NYT gets further details from a senior government official who said in total 420 were arrested in 56 operations, which began in October. The paper also talks to some American officers who said at least six senior militia leaders had been captured in recent weeks and, contrary to what they say usually takes place, they weren't impulsively released. 

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More interesting, though, is the NYT's claim that "changes have been felt on the street" as there seems to have been a decrease in Shiite militia activity in recent weeks. No one is sure exactly why it's happening or why militia leaders aren't striking back after the crackdowns.

The Post fronts, and everyone else mentions, news that three senators (two Democrats and a Republican) introduced a symbolic resolution opposing Bush's plan to increase the number of troops in Iraq. Sen. Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, said she would support the resolution, but said tougher measures were needed and vowed to introduce legislation to put a cap on U.S. troops.

She wasn't the only one, as lawmakers from the House and the Senate, particularly  potential presidential candidates, criticized Bush's plans and several talked about introducing legislation about Iraq. For example, Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut proposed a bill that would require Bush to seek congressional authorization for any increase in troop levels, which is similar to legislation introduced by Sen. Edward Kennedy. "Lawmakers were introducing Iraqi legislation at a mad pace yesterday … by the end of the day, they had issued more bills than Pepco," writes the Post's Dana Milbank.

It's now 11:55 p.m. … The WP reports the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists' Doomsday Clock moved two minutes closer to midnight yesterday. The nuclear ambitions of North Korea and Iran are two of the issues that caused the clock to move closer to doomsday.

He should wear a disguise next time. … Two weeks ago, the Post's Reliable Source column reported in its regular "sightings" feature that Israeli Vice Premier Shimon Peres went to eat at Teatro Goldoni after Gerald Ford's funeral. Seems pretty innocuous, but it turns out that Peres was scheduled to meet with a group of Israeli reporters but canceled at the last minute saying he had to get back to Israel for the funeral of Jerusalem's former mayor.

Daniel Politi has been contributing to Slate since 2004 and wrote the Today’s Papers column from 2006 to 2009. Follow him on Twitter.