Broader domestic spying allowed Court says U.S. can employ new powers
By Toni Locy
WASHINGTON -- The U.S. government can take advantage of sweeping secret surveillance powers adopted by Congress last year after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, a special appeals court said Monday in a major victory for the Bush administration's domestic war on terrorism.
Attorney General John Ashcroft said the ruling ''revolutionizes our ability to investigate terrorists,'' and he launched several initiatives to make it easier for FBI agents to use wiretaps, e-mail monitoring programs and searches to spy on terrorism suspects in the USA.
In a 56-page ruling, a three-judge panel overturned a May opinion by the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court that sought to limit Ashcroft's interpretation of powers granted to the government by the USA Patriot Act. The FISA court oversees secret surveillance by U.S. agents in foreign intelligence cases; its ruling against Ashcroft was the first time in its 24-year history that the court had publicly issued a decision.
The reversal of that decision ''is an affirmation of the will of Congress, a vindication of (U.S.) agents and prosecutors . . . and a victory for liberty, safety and the security'' of Americans, Ashcroft said.
The ruling was a setback for civil libertarians trying to slow what they see as the administration's assault on constitutional rights. ''It dramatically expands the risk that law-abiding American citizens and permanent residents could be subjected to highly intrusive . . . surveillance,'' said Jameel Jaffer, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union.
A senior Justice Department official said he expects the department to step up its pursuit of warrants for secret wiretaps and searches. But he said he does not believe the increase will be ''staggering.''
The secret FISA court may approve electronic surveillance only on a suspected ''agent of a foreign power.'' If the suspect is a U.S. citizen or permanent resident, FBI agents must show that they believe a crime is being committed, such as espionage, sabotage or the plotting of a terrorist attack.
Before the Patriot Act, investigators had to convince a FISA judge that gathering foreign intelligence to protect national security was ''the purpose'' of the surveillance. The Patriot Act says obtaining foreign intelligence needs only to be ''a significant purpose'' of the spying.
Among the initiatives Ashcroft announced:
* A new computer system that will permit agents to draft FISA applications and send them ''in real time'' to FBI headquarters and the Justice Department.
* An increase in the number of FBI and Justice lawyers assigned to FISA matters.
* The designation of one prosecutor in each of the nation's 93 U.S. attorneys' offices as a FISA expert.
Congress established the FISA court in 1978 amid revelations that the FBI had abused its authority by spying on high-profile Americans, such as Martin Luther King Jr.
A key issue in the court's May ruling was who controlled foreign intelligence probes: prosecutors intent on bringing criminal cases or intelligence investigators determined to thwart future attacks. The FISA court did not want prosecutors in the Justice Department's criminal division calling the shots, and required the department to tell the court who was leading such investigations. But the three-judge appeals panel said the secret court has no business delving into ''the origins of an investigation, nor examination of the personnel involved.'' Such assignments are the attorney general's ''prerogative,'' the judges said.