WASHINGTON – The nation's spy court approved a record number of requests to search or eavesdrop on suspected terrorists and spies last year, the Justice Department said Wednesday.
The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court approved 2,370 warrants last year targeting people in the United States believed to be linked to international terror organizations.
That figure represents a 9 percent increase over 2006. The number of warrants has more than doubled since the terrorist attacks of 2001.
The secret intelligence court was established in 1978 to authorize surveillance of suspected spies inside the U.S.
The court denied three warrant applications in full and partially denied one, the Justice Department said. Eighty-six times judges sent requests back to the government for changes before approving them.
Those oversight numbers also represent an increase over last year, when the court partially denied only one application and required changes to 73 applications.
Because the workings of the court are secret, however, it's impossible to know whether that increase was due to more court oversight, more aggressive government efforts or simply the nuances of individual cases.
Congress created the court in 1978 with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The government must get approval from the court to monitor phone conversations or e-mails on suspected terrorists or spies in the United States. The law does not apply to surveillance outside the U.S.
The Bush administration has recently sought to change what can be done without a warrant. The White House says the law needs to keep pace with new technology, which routes many foreign telecommunications signals through the U.S.
Civil rights and privacy advocates, however, worry that changing the law would make it easier for the government to eavesdrop on Americans without court approval.
A compromise bill has stalled. President Bush insists that the bill must shield telecommunications companies from lawsuits over wiretaps and other information they allowed without court approval following the 2001 attacks. Democrats in Congress oppose that provision.
Because the most recent wiretap figures are from 2007, however, the effect of this dispute on the workload of the court is not yet public.