WASHINGTON -- Attorney General John Ashcroft and the FBI have broad power to wiretap the phones and secretly search the computers and homes of individuals who can be linked to foreign terrorists, a special spy review court ruled Monday.
Proclaiming a major victory in the war on terrorism, Ashcroft said the decision "revolutionizes our ability to investigate and prosecute terrorists" because it permits criminal investigators and intelligence agents to work together and to share information.
Ann Beeson, who heads the American Civil Liberties Union's Technology and Liberty program, said she was "deeply disappointed with the decision, which suggests that this special court exists only to rubber-stamp government applications for intrusive surveillance warrants." Other lawyers were uncertain whether the case could be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Until now, the government has been told to maintain a "wall" between its spying on foreign agents and its investigation of ordinary criminals.
In Monday's opinion, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of Review cast aside that concept. "There is simply no basis (in law) to limit criminal prosecutors' ability to advise FBI intelligence officials" on undertaking searches or sharing the results -- and vice versa, the review court said.
In addition, as a policy matter, the court said, "counterintelligence brings to bear both classic criminal investigation techniques as well as less focused intelligence-gathering. Indeed, effective counterintelligence, we have learned, requires the wholehearted cooperation of all the government's personnel who can be brought to the task. A standard which punishes such cooperation could well be thought dangerous to national security."
The court's three federal appeals court judges were appointed by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist with the sole mission to review rulings from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which was created in 1978 to oversee particularly sensitive law-enforcement activities, including wiretaps and other forms of surveillance, against suspected spies, terrorists and foreign agents.
All three judges on the review court -- Ralph B. Guy of the 6th Circuit in Cincinnati, Edward Leavy of the 9th Circuit in San Francisco and Laurence H. Silberman of the D.C. Circuit -- were originally named to the federal bench by President Reagan.
In May, the seven-member Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court ruled that Ashcroft was improperly trying to broaden the FBI's spying abilities. His actions were based on the USA Patriot Act, passed in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, which appeared to ease the wall between intelligence gathering and criminal investigations. The May decision, made public in August by the Senate Judiciary Committee, which had been pushing for information about the secret court, contained blistering criticism of the FBI and the Justice Department.
The spy court spurned a request from the Justice Department to permit broader cooperation between criminal prosecutors and counter-intelligence investigators, saying the request was "not reasonably designed" to safeguard the privacy of Americans.
Monday's ruling reverses that decision and upholds Ashcroft's initiative.
In response, Ashcroft ordered an immediate stepped-up use of "the powerful tools of foreign intelligence surveillance."
Officials said the ruling allows the CIA and the FBI to work together and share information on potential terrorists. But they also stressed that there would be continued limits on the government's power.
The expanded wiretap power applies only to cases involving "serious foreign threats to national security," not to "ordinary crimes," the review court said.
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