The Bush administration has reversed its policy to eavesdrop on U.S. citizens without court-approved warrants. On Wednesday, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales announced wiretaps will now be approved by the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court as required by law. No reasons were given for the change, but critics say it may be timed with increased scrutiny from the new Democratic Congress. Questions remain over the extent of the reversal. The Justice Department has not revealed whether FISA courts will rule on individual wiretaps or on requests covering multiple cases. Gonzales says the new policy was enacted last week and that one judge has already approved a request. Critics welcome the change but say the Bush administration shouldn’t be applauded for agreeing to comply with the law. House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers said: "While this may be a step in the right direction, it should not deflect the attention of the American people or the Congress from seeking answers about the current and past operation of this program."
The Bush administration has also announced plans to review its no-fly list for travelers in the United States. The Department of Homeland Security expects the list to decline by half, and says individuals will now be allowed to appeal their inclusion.
Debate over the Iraq War is growing on Capitol Hill. On Wednesday, several lawmakers announced measures denouncing the Bush administration’s plan to send 21,000 more troops. In the House, Democratic Congressmembers Barbara Lee, Lynn Woolsey and Maxine Waters of California introduced a bill calling for a full U.S. withdrawal within six months and a ban on permanent U.S. military bases in Iraq. In the Senate, Democratic Senator Christopher Dodd introduced a plan that would require new congressional authorization for the war. Meanwhile, four senators — Republicans Chuck Hagel and Olympia Snowe and Democrats Carl Levin and Joseph Biden — introduced a bipartisan resolution saying the Iraq War is harming national interests. Biden described the measure as a vote of no-confidence on the administration’s policy in Iraq.
Sen. Joseph Biden: "U.S. strategy and presence in Iraq can only be sustained with the support of the American people and the bipartisan support United States Congress. Ladies and gentlemen, this resolution will demonstrate that and demonstrate that right away. The support is not there for the president’s policy in Iraq, and the sooner he realizes that reality and acts on it, the better off we will all be."
Meanwhile, Democratic Senator Hillary Clinton proposed to cap the number of U.S. troops in Iraq to the level before the Bush administration announced its troops surge last week.
Sen. Hillary Clinton: "The president is sending mixed signals. He has finally said that this is not an open-ended commitment in Iraq, but this is providing the Iraqis with an open-ended presence of American troops. We need to change course."
Clinton’s comments come one day after her likely rival for the Democratic presidential nomination — Senator Barack Obama — announced plans to enter the presidential field.
As debate increases over sending more U.S. troops to Iraq, Defense Secretary Robert Gates gave more indications Wednesday he’s leaning toward deploying additional troops to Afghanistan.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates: "If the people who are leading the struggle out here believe there is a need for additional help to sustain the success we’ve had, I’m going to be very sympathetic to that kind of a request."
Gates was speaking in Afghanistan shortly before leaving for Saudi Arabia.
In other news, a spate of dismissals of federal prosecutors is raising new allegations the Bush administration is interfering with the judicial system. In one controversial case, Justice Department officials have asked San Diego U.S. Attorney Carol Lam to step down. Legal experts say the move is unprecedented because Lam was never accused of misconduct while in office. Lam oversaw the corruption prosecution against the jailed former Republican Congressmember Duke Cunningham. She’s also avoided low-level cases around border smuggling and focused on public corruption and white-collar crime. The Associated Press reports at least 11 U.S. attorneys have resigned since last year’s enactment of an obscure provision in the USA PATRIOT Act that allows the U.S. attorney general to name replacements without Senate confirmation. Criticism is also being raised about those new replacements. In Arkansas, both state senators voiced concerns after the administration appointed a former research director for the Republican National Committee.
These developments come as the Bush administration has issued a new warning to federal judges. In a speech to the American Enterprise Institute Wednesday, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said federal judges are unqualified to rule on issues relating to national security policy and should always defer to the will of the administration and Congress when presiding over such cases.
Is the world entering a second nuclear age? The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists gave its answer Wednesday with the first change to the Doomsday Clock in five years. Executive Director Kennette Benedict made the announcement in Washington.
Kennette Benedict: "The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists is moving the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock two minutes closer to midnight. It is now five minutes to midnight. This change reflects global failures to solve the problems solved by nuclear weapons and by climate change."
The Doomsday Clock was created 60 years ago to warn the world of the dangers of nuclear proliferation. The clock change comes one week after the Bush administration announced fresh plans in building the nation’s first new nuclear warhead in nearly two decades.
In Mexico, a human rights delegation has released the initial findings of an investigatation into police suppression of the popular uprising in Oaxaca.
Ignacio Garcia of the International Civil Commission on Human Rights: "The repressive action that we see was abusive. It was an excessive operation directed against a civil movement, and the causes that started this conflict are still outstanding."
A full report will be released next week.
In the Philippines, military officials are claiming to have killed a key leader in the Islamic militant group Abu Sayyaf.
Philippine military chief Hermogenes Esperon: "We are officially confirming the death of Jainal Antel Sali, alias Abu Sulaiman, alias 'the Engineer,' who is actually the Abu Sayyaf group logistics and supply officer and the overall leader of the Abu Sayyaf group, urban terrorist group."
The Abu Sayyaf are fighting for a pan-Islamic state within the Philippines. U.S. military advisers are assisting the Philippine government, and there are reports U.S. special forces have engaged in direct combat against Muslim rebel groups. The group Focus on the Global South says U.S. military involvement may be violating the Philippine constitution and should be investigated.
Back on Capitol Hill, pharmaceutical companies are preparing to challenge a new resolution that would prevent them from buying out generic rivals to keep cheaper drugs off the market. Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy introduced the measure on Wednesday. Appearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, a Federal Trade Commission official testified U.S. drug law gives generic companies more incentive to be bought off than to develop cheaper alternatives to branded and more expensive medications.
A Pentagon advisory group has concluded almost no scientific evidence exists to support several interrogation techniques used in the so-called war on terror. In a new report, the Intelligence Science Board says painful and coercive techniques could even prevent interrogators from receiving valuable information. Several experts say the techniques were developed despite the complete absence of a scientific consensus about their effectiveness.
A U.S. marine has reportedly agreed to own up to the killing of an Iraqi civilian in the town of Hamdania last year. The marine, Corporal Trent Thomas, is expected to plead guilty today for the murder of Hashim Ibrahim Awad. Four other marines have been charged in the case.
And the boxing legend and cultural icon Muhammad Ali celebrated his 65th birthday Wednesday. Ali was stripped of his heavyweight title during the prime of his career after he refused to serve in the Vietnam War. Ali’s birthday was honored Wednesday at the Muhammad Ali Center in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky.
Ali Center CEO Michael Fox: "He has stood tall and fought the good fight, whether it was in the ring where he thought he could beat someone or whether it’s fighting the government with the likes of the Vietnam War and his stand on that."