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Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has always had an awkward role as the Bush administration’s point person defending the National Security Agency’s warrantless surveillance program. That’s because a large part of Gonzales’ justification of the NSA program was that his subordinates at the FBI and within his department who specialized in Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court-approved wiretaps of possible terrorism-related communiqu�s couldn’t effectively monitor foreign-to-domestic communication on their own. Thus, the argument went, the necessity of another government agency’s extrajudicial domestic spying program. Last week’s announcement that the White House would not reauthorize the program and would conduct such surveillance only under the authority of the secret FISA court was short on details. For instance, Gonzales wouldn’t say whether a single order from the court could broadly allow the surveillance of hundreds of people. But what’s clear is that not just the FISA court but the Justice Department’s Office of Intelligence Policy and Review will play a significantly larger role in deciding who the government can watch and listen to. One issue that’s dogged the OIPR since the 9/11 attacks has been a substantial backlog of unprocessed wiretap applications by the FBI — applications its attorneys were charged with taking before the FISA court for approval. But on Jan. 17, just one day before Gonzales was due to appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee — where he’d been questioned about the backlog previously — the Justice Department unexpectedly announced that the OIPR had become much more efficient at bringing wiretap applications before the court. The number of days it took OIPR attorneys to process applications has fallen 35 percent since 2004, and the number of pending wiretaps has fallen 65 percent (though the DOJ refused to disclose the absolute size of the backlog). Kenneth Wainstein, the DOJ’s new National Security Division chief, says the drop is due in part to refinements in how the office processes applications. But a big infusion of tax dollars has helped as well. The OIPR’s stable of attorneys grew from 29 to 152 between 2000 and 2006, and its budget increased more than sevenfold.
Jason McLure can be contacted at [email protected].

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