Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Use of secret warrants increased last year

Use of secret warrants up last year

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The number of court-approved warrants allowing the Bush administration to conduct intelligence searches and electronic surveillance inside the United States climbed 18 percent to 2,072 in 2005, the Justice Department said on Monday.

The administration also increased in its pursuit of business records and used secret subpoenas to get information on more than 3,000 people in the United States under separate provisions of the USA Patriot Act, which granted the government expanded police powers after the September 11 attacks.

The Justice Department released statistics on its use of secret warrants, business records and national security letters in a report to Congress dated April 28. A copy of the document was first reported by "Secrecy News," an e-mail newsletter published by the Federation of American Scientists.

The number of intelligence-related warrants approved last year by a secret federal court for surveillance and searches rose 318 from a total of 1,754 in 2004, a Justice Department spokeswoman confirmed.

The secret court, established in 1978 by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, made substantial modifications to 61 government warrant applications last year. But it denied no warrant application filed in 2005.

The increase in secret wiretaps and searches comes amid an expansion of domestic counterterrorism activities among federal agencies including the FBI.

But the warrants are not related to the domestic spying program that President George W. Bush authorized the National Security Agency to conduct soon after the September 11 attacks.

The NSA program allows the authorities to monitor the international e-mails and phone calls of U.S. citizens without obtaining warrants while in pursuit of al Qaeda suspects.

Administration officials have said warrantless surveillance is necessary because FISA warrant requirements are not flexible enough to contend with al Qaeda and other militant networks opposed to the United States.

Meanwhile, the Justice Department said the FISA court in 2005 also approved 155 warrants granting federal authorities access to business records under the Patriot Act.

Comparison figures for 2004 are classified. But Attorney General Alberto Gonzales told the Senate intelligence committee last year that by March 30, 2005, the administration had used the authority only 35 times since the Patriot Act first came into force in 2001.

The Justice Department also said the government issued 9,254 secret national security letters in 2005 to gather information on 3,501 people, including U.S. citizens and residents. National security letters, authorized by the Patriot Act, allow the FBI to demand disclosure of personal information without the approval of a judge or grand jury.