- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 20, 2002

Terrorists seeking to attack U.S. military and civilian targets will be the primary focus of the Justice Department's expanded authority to use wiretaps, searches and surveillance, law-enforcement authorities said yesterday.
Key among the investigative targets is Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda terrorist network, the sources said, including "sleeper cells" now in the United States and several groups of Middle Eastern men thought to be part of an infrastructure of 5,000 al Qaeda terrorists and supporters in this country.
On Monday, a three-judge federal appeals court panel authorized the expanded use of wiretaps, searches and surveillance when it said the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court (FISA) erred in May by blocking expanded guidelines sought by Attorney General John Ashcroft under the new USA Patriot Act.
The panel, sitting as the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of Review, said the FISA court restrictions were "not required by [the act] or the Constitution."
"The Court of Review's action revolutionizes our ability to investigate terrorists and prosecute terrorist acts," Mr. Ashcroft said. It allows the department to do "everything we can to identify those who would hurt us, to disrupt them, to delay them, to defeat them," although he declined to identify potential targets.
U.S. intelligence officials believe al Qaeda terrorists are well-established in the United States. Recent classified reports given to government policy-makers put their number at 5,000. The FBI has said the organization was weakened by the war in Afghanistan and by post-September 11 law-enforcement efforts, but remains "potent and highly capable" of carrying out attacks around the world.
In addition to al Qaeda, about a dozen international terrorist groups have members and supporters in the United States all of whom have been targeted by the FBI and other federal agencies.
Last year, the government sought FISA warrants for 930 persons, and while civil libertarians and others expect that number to increase significantly as a result of the ruling, a top Justice Department official said yesterday he did not believe the number would "shoot out of sight."
"The process remains under the close supervision of the court, and no warrants can be issued without a thorough review," the official said.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, cautioned the Justice Department not to conclude that the ruling "had thrown out constitutional restraints and thrown open everyone's doors to government snooping."
"That is not the case, and it would be wise for the Justice Department to read the decision more closely," he said, adding that the Patriot Act made clear that the Justice Department may use FISA only to collect foreign intelligence information and not for law enforcement.
"We have not given them authority to use FISA for the primary purpose of bringing a criminal prosecution for non-foreign intelligence crimes, such as crimes other than sabotage, espionage or international terrorism," he said.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which challenged Mr. Ashcroft's bid to expand the guidelines, warned that the ruling gives the Justice Department the right to "suspend the ordinary requirements of the Fourth Amendment in order to listen in on phone calls, read e-mails and conduct secret searches of Americans' homes and offices."
The ACLU questioned whether the Patriot Act passed by Congress after the September 11 attacks permits the government to use looser foreign intelligence standards to conduct criminal investigations in the United States. Although the ACLU was allowed to file a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the FISA court ruling, it was not permitted to participate in oral argument before the three-judge panel.
Ann Beeson, ACLU litigation director, said in a statement that the organization was considering requesting an appeal to the Supreme Court and asking Congress to clarify through legislation that it did not authorize the Justice Department to use FISA's looser surveillance standards in ordinary criminal cases.
Meanwhile, Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican and senior Judiciary Committee member who has been a frequent FBI critic, said the ruling should "untie" the government's hands and help prevent terrorist attacks.
"The outdated rules on information-sharing hurt our counterterrorism efforts, and now we can move forward to protect national security while respecting rights and abiding by built-in safeguards," he said. "Congress should continue close oversight of the FISA process and the Patriot Act."


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