Federal surveillance up sharply


    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.

    The
    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.

    The
    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.

    The
    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.

    The
    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
    Americans.

    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.

    ‘LIMITED PROGRAM’

    Bush
    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