WASHINGTON – A secret court approved all but one of the government's requests last year to search or eavesdrop on suspected terrorists and spies, according to Justice Department data released Tuesday.
In all, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court signed off on 2,176 warrants targeting people in the United States believed to be linked to international terror organizations or spies. The record number is more than twice as many as were issued in 2000, the last full year before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
One application was denied in part, and 73 required changes before being approved.
The disclosure was mandated as part of the renewal of the Patriot Act, the administration's sweeping anti-terror law. It was released as a Senate intelligence panel examined changes to the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that could let the government more easily monitor homegrown terrorists.
But in its three-page public report, sent to Senate and House leaders, the Justice Department said it could not yet provide data on how many times the FBI secretly sought telephone, Internet and banking records about U.S. citizens and residents without court approval.
The department is still compiling those numbers amid an internal investigation of the FBI's improper — and in some cases illegal — use of so-called national security letters. The letters are administrative subpoenas that do not require a judge's approval.
A March audit by Justice Department Inspector General Glenn A. Fine concluded that some FBI agents had demanded personal data without official authorization, and improperly obtained telephone records in non-emergency circumstances. It also found that the FBI for three years underreported to Congress how often it used national security letters to ask businesses to turn over customer data.
Assistant Attorney General Richard Hertling said the FBI would give Congress updated numbers for 2007, and corrected data for last year, when it finishes "taking steps to correct the identified deficiencies in its tracking of NSLs."
In 2005, the FBI reported issuing national security letters on 3,501 citizens and legal residents.
The FISA court also approved 43 warrants to let investigators examine business records of suspected terrorists and spies. It changed four of the applications before approving them, but did not deny any, according to the Justice report.