The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. is a top secret body created in 1978 to review the attorney general’s requests to authorize electronic surveillance to obtain foreign intelligence information.
The court’s ruling said that expanded powers to wiretap those suspected in foreign terrorist operations — including U.S. citizens — outlined in the U.S.A. Patriot Act do not violate the Constitution.
The ruling, made by a select panel from the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, overturns a decision limiting the government’s surveillance authority by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court — a top secret body created in 1978 to review the attorney general’s requests to authorize electronic surveillance to obtain foreign intelligence information.
Attorney General John Ashcroft hailed the ruling during a press conference Monday, saying it “confirmed the Department of Justice’s legal authority to integrate fully the functions of law enforcement and intelligence.”
“Today’s ruling is an affirmation of the will of Congress, a vindication of the agents and prosecutors of the Department of Justice, and a victory for liberty, safety and the security of the American people,” Ashcroft said.
However, the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed briefs in support of the lower court ruling, said the decision will allow the government too much authority to invade Americans’ privacy.
“We are deeply disappointed with the decision, which suggests that this special court exists only to rubberstamp government applications for intrusive surveillance warrants,” Ann Beeson, litigation director of the Technology and Liberty Program of the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement.
It is unclear whether the ACLU intends to appeal Monday’s ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In a May ruling, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court decided against the Justice Department’s proposed plan for greater information sharing between intelligence officials and domestic law enforcement. The court argued the proposal would eliminate congressionally-mandated barriers between the intelligence community and criminal prosecutors that could allow prosecutors to “advise FBI intelligence officials concerning ‘the initiation, operation, continuation, or expansion of [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] searches or surveillance'” — a change from previous procedure.
The court said the proposed rules were “not reasonably designed” to protect Americans’ privacy.
The Justice Department argued before the appeals court that the lower court had “wholly exceeded” its authority, saying Congress had approved the enhanced surveillance powers when it passed the Patriot Act.
In Monday’s ruling, the three-judge appeals panel agreed, saying that “FISA’s general programmic purpose, to protect the nation against terrorists and espionage threats directed by foreign powers, has from its outset been distinguishable from ‘ordinary crime control.’ After the events of September 11, 2001, though, it is hard to imagine greater emergencies facing Americans than those experienced on that date.”
The judges said the Justice Department’s proposal is “constitutional because the surveillances it authorizes are reasonable.”