The number of secret surveillance warrants sought by the FBI has increased 85 percent in the past three years, a pace that has outstripped the Justice Department’s ability to process them quickly.
Even after warrants are approved, the FBI often doesn’t have enough agents or other personnel with the expertise to conduct the surveillance. And the agency still is trying to build a cadre of translators who can understand conversations intercepted in such languages as Arabic, Pashto and Farsi.
These are among the findings of investigators for the commission probing the September 11 attacks, which has criticized the intelligence-gathering efforts of the CIA and FBI.
FBI and Justice Department officials said yesterday that they are working to address all three issues, which limit the government’s ability to gather the kind of intelligence needed to head off terrorist attacks.
The warrants, authorized by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, allow for wiretaps, video surveillance, property searches and other spying on people thought to be terrorists or spies. After the 2001 Patriot Act and a key 2002 court decision crumbled the legal wall separating the FBI’s criminal and intelligence investigations, use of FISA warrants has soared as sharing of information has become easier.
The number of warrant requests has risen from 934 in 2001 to more than 1,700 in 2003, according to the FBI. The agency adopted streamlined procedures to move the requests quickly from the field offices to headquarters after the September 11 attacks.
But a report by the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States released this week found that the Justice Department approval process “continues to be long and slow” and that the mounting requests “are overwhelming the ability of the system to process them.”