U.S. Government Allows for Broader Domestic Spying


USA Today reports that 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 United States.

In a 56-page ruling, a three-judge panel overturned a May opinion by the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) 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.

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 that obtaining foreign intelligence needs only to be “a significant purpose” of the spying.Among the initiatives Ashcroft announced:

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.

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