Federal applications for a special U.S. court to authorize secret
surveillance rose sharply after the September 11, 2001, attacks, and
the panel required changes to the requests at an even greater rate,
government documents show.

President George W. Bush acknowledged
this month he had secretly ordered the National Security Agency to
eavesdrop on the international phone conversations and e-mail of
Americans suspected of links to terrorists without approval from the
Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

The domestic spying order has set off a furious debate over whether
the war on terrorism gives Bush a blank check when it comes to civil
liberties and whether the president, in fact, broke the law.

Justice Department’s reports to the U.S. Congress on the surveillance
court’s activities show the Bush administration made 5,645 applications
for electronic surveillance and physical searches from 2001 through
2004, the most recent year for which figures are available. In the
previous four years, the court received a total of 3,436.

11-judge panel modified 179 of the Bush administration’s requests. By
contrast, only one was modified in the preceding four years. The court
has reportedly handled almost 20,000 applications since it was set up
and has rejected only a handful.

Reasons for the modifications were not stated and could range from minor alterations to more substantive changes.

highly classified court was set up by the 1978 Foreign Intelligence
Surveillance Act, or FISA, in the wake of Cold War spy fears and
President Richard Nixon’s misuse of U.S. intelligence agencies to spy
on the anti-Vietnam War movement and other political dissidents.

Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations has filed a
Freedom of Information request with federal agencies seeking government
records relating to Bush’s executive orders authorizing surveillance of

The group said on Tuesday it also filed a similar
request with the Justice and Energy Departments for information on the
secret radiation monitoring of Muslim sites in six U.S. cities, first
reported by U.S. News and World Report.

The magazine reported
last week that more than 100 sites, including private homes, were
monitored without court approval as required by FISA.

“We are
concerned that, under this secretive program, our government has
overstepped constitutional bounds by intruding on private property
without any probable cause or valid court orders,” CAIR’s national
legal director, Arsalan Iftikhar, said in a statement.


has said FISA was intended for “long-term monitoring” and that the
government after September 11 needed to move “faster and quicker” to
protect Americans.

Bush said he had reauthorized the domestic
spying program more than 30 times since the September 11 attacks and
would continue to do so.

In Crawford, Texas, where Bush is
spending the holidays, his spokesman, Trent Duffy, defended what he
called a “limited program.”

“This is not about monitoring phone
calls designed to arrange Little League practice or what to bring to a
potluck dinner,” he told reporters. “These are designed to monitor
calls from very bad people to very bad people who have a history of
blowing up commuter trains, weddings, and churches.”

After some
of the FISA judges expressed concern about the legality of the domestic
spying program, the Bush administration agreed to provide them with a
classified briefing, probably early next month.

(Additional reporting by JoAnne Allen)

© 2005 Reuters