Courts grant government intrusive powers

In a decision that will greatly expand the government’s authority to eavesdrop on Americans, a federal appeals court ruled Monday that the Justice Department has broad powers to use wiretaps and other means to combat terrorism.

Monday’s decision means the government will face fewer hurdles when it seeks to listen to telephone conversations and read the email of people who are suspected of espionage or terrorism. Intelligence agents and criminal prosecutors also will be able to share information more freely.

The special appeals court ruled that the expanded powers sought in the USA PATRIOT Act are “constitutional because the surveillances it authorizes are reasonable.”

Attorney General John Ashcroft called the decision “a victory for liberty, safety and the security of the American people.”

Armed with the ruling, Ashcroft announced Monday that the FBI was doubling the number of lawyers in its National Security Law Unit, which handles foreign intelligence wiretap applications, and would add 25 lawyers to the Justice Department’s Office of Intelligence Policy and Review.

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which was created to oversee sensitive law enforcement activities, typically toils in secret. But it threw open its doors earlier this year when it not only rejected for the first time a government request for broader surveillance powers but also made its opinion public.

In that unprecedented and deeply critical decision, the FISA court said there had been 75 instances of surveillance-warrant abuse during the Clinton administration.

Ashcroft said the Justice Department was creating a streamlined system so that wiretap and surveillance applications could be processed faster.

Monday’s ruling was a bitter disappointment to civil liberties groups, which had fought the USA PATRIOT Act provisions that the appeals panel validated.

“Ordinary American citizens are more likely to become the victims of highly intrusive government surveillance, because meaningful judicial oversight has effectively been eliminated,” said Jameel Jaffer, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union.

The government has the sole right to appeal the ruling under the law. But Jaffer said the ACLU, which filed a friend of the court brief in the case, was exploring ways to get the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.