For the first time, the annual number of secret surveillance warrants in federal terrorism and espionage cases has exceeded the total number of wiretaps approved in criminal cases nationwide. The Washington Post says the data provide further evidence of how the Justice Department and the FBI have shifted their focus from traditional criminals to suspected terrorists.
Federal and state courts authorized wiretaps and other electronic surveillance in 1,442 criminal cases last year, says the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. The FBI says the number of warrants filed last year with the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in Washington jumped to more than 1,700.
The volume wiretaps has grown so rapidly that the Justice Department is behind in processing applications, resulting in serious bottlenecks, says the commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The report said the approval process “continues to be long and slow” and that requests “are overwhelming the ability of the system to process them.”
“This really amounts to the first statistical proof that the Justice Department has redefined its mission and has undergone a fundamental shift in the way it conducts surveillance,” said David L. Sobel of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. “The fact that it is now a secret court that is overseeing the majority of surveillance activity, in cases that do not require probable cause, does raise significant privacy and constitutional issues.”
The House Judiciary Committee is set to consider legislation that would expand the government’s ability to conduct surveillance. Officials stressed that in urgent cases, Attorney General John Ashcroft may circumvent the backlog of FISA warrant applications by seeking emergency orders while awaiting approval of standard warrants. A task force of 10 FBI and Justice Department lawyers has been assigned to plow through the backlog of cases. Ashcroft also decided two weeks ago that FBI agents should send their requests directly to the Justice Department, rather than to FBI headquarters, for initial legal review.