- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 3, 2006

The number of wiretap permits issued by a special court has more than doubled since the September 11 terrorist attacks, according to a Justice Department report to Congress.

More than 2,000 wiretaps were approved last year by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to spy on suspects of terrorism or espionage, compared with a little more than 900 wiretaps in 2001.

In addition, more than 9,000 warrants were issued without court approval last year through National Security Letters to snoop through the records of more than 3,500 people, according to the report to the House Republican leadership.

“Those are very large and very dismaying numbers,” said Caroline Fredrickson of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Under the USA Patriot Act, which was passed shortly after the attacks, the Justice Department can use the letters as warrants to look at items such as bank or Internet records, phone logs, credit information, details on car rentals or casino expenditures.

When Congress renewed the act this year, it required that the number of letters issued be reported to Congress.

“Now that they’ve seen the numbers, hopefully Congress will be even more curious and continue to ask about the scope of these letters,” said David L. Sobel of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

Although the report says the scope was limited to a little more than 3,500 people, hundreds of thousands of other people can get caught in the vast net through phone requests, Mr. Sobel said.

A single request for information on hotel guests can generate data on hundreds of people, he said.

“These numbers are likely the tip of the iceberg,” Mr. Sobel said.

Since its inception in 1979, the special court has rejected only four applications — all in 2004.

Despite the court’s record in supporting nearly all requests, the Bush administration bypassed the court and went through the National Security Agency to wiretap overseas calls involving terror suspects.

“This court has given the executive branch everything they have wanted for 30 years, so why do they need to bypass the court?” Mr. Sobel said. “The only answer is that the justifications were so weak that the administration came to the conclusion the court would not approve it.”

In a separate report from the Administrative Office of the United States Courts to Congress, the number of wiretaps for criminal investigations requested by state officials grew by 17 percent, but the number of requests from federal officials decreased by 18 percent.

A total of 1,773 intercepts by wire, orally and electronically were authorized by federal and state courts last year to investigate crimes such as drug trafficking, gambling, murder, kidnapping and theft.

“The average percentage of intercepted communications that were incriminating was 22 percent in 2005, compared to 21 percent in 2004,” the report says.

The wiretaps led to the arrests of more than 4,500 people by federal officials and 776 convictions. State officials made more than 2,500 arrests with 240 convictions.

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