Associated Press
April 30, 2002

Secret U.S. court approved 934 wiretaps, searches last year

By TED BRIDIS, Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) - The government requested and won approval of fewer warrants last year for secret wiretaps and searches of suspected terrorists and spies, attributing a slight decline to streamlined procedures that became law after the Sept. 11 terror attacks.

The government received court approval for 934 of the secret warrants, down from 1,003 in 2000.

Attorney General John Ashcroft said Tuesday the new Patriot Act, which amended the 1978 surveillance statute, made it easier for authorities to request fewer warrants since they don't expire as quickly and can be used in some cases across jurisdictions.

"The Patriot Act provides some measures of efficiency that can be of assistance to us, and I think it would be fair to interpret the data in light of that," Ashcroft said.

Experts puzzled over the slight decline in a measure of the war on terrorism inside the United States. They said it probably reflected warrants that covered many surveillance requests under a single investigation -- plus increased use by the FBI of tools other than these warrants, such as subpoenas for a suspect's financial records.

"There's no question the number of investigations went up in 2001 -- it's unthinkable it would be otherwise," said Steven Aftergood of the Washington-based Federation of American Scientists.

Experts believe many of the warrants approved last year under the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act were driven by the Sept. 11 attacks and by the changes to the law by Congress in the aftermath.

The FBI often uses these specialized warrants to record the telephone calls and e-mails of citizens and immigrants believed to be agents of a foreign power. Authorities also can plant eavesdropping devices in a suspect's home or office or secretly search a suspect's property.

In one rare case where details have emerged of FBI surveillance under the 1978 law, authorities for more than 18 months secretly tapped the telephones -- and planted bugs in the bedroom -- of a husband and wife who were convicted in 1998 on espionage charges. An appeals court upheld the FBI's actions.

The government said it asked for 932 warrants for electronic surveillance and physical searches that the court approved in 2001 along with two requests made in December 2000. It said judges modified two warrants and two orders.

The judges have never denied a request outright. But in an unusual flap that became public after Sept. 11, the FBI was unable to gain approval in the weeks before the terror attacks for a surveillance warrant against Zacarias Moussaoui, the only person so far to be indicted as a conspirator in attacks.

FBI Director Robert Mueller has expressed frustration at how well the hijackers managed to evade authorities.

"The hijackers had no computers, no laptops, no storage media of any kind," Mueller said in a speech this month. "They used hundreds of different pay phones and cell phones, often with prepaid calling cards that are extremely difficult to trace. And they made sure that all the money sent to them to fund their attacks was wired in small amounts to avoid detection."

While some experts said the figures offered an unusual glimpse of the scope of the war on terrorism, others said the numbers were too vague to be meaningful.

"It's really difficult to read too much into these figures," said David Sobel of the Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Center, urging more detailed disclosure about how the warrants were sought and used.

The government disclosed Tuesday that it used such a surveillance warrant in December to search the offices and director's home of a charity with ties to Osama bin Laden, the Benevolence International Foundation in suburban Chicago.

Court records suggest the FBI also used the special warrants last year in its espionage investigation of a retired Air Force master sergeant accused of offering to spy for Iraq, China and Libya. U.S. spy-catchers, for example, quietly searched the luggage of Brian Patrick Regan when he flew to Germany from Dulles International Airport last June and said they found glue and packing tape inside.

The Patriot Act, which became law on Oct. 26, broadened the 1978 surveillance law by allowing the FBI to request warrants in investigations that aren't mostly focused on foreign intelligence.

The law also expanded the number of judges who may approve the warrants from seven to 11, though the additional four have not yet been appointed by the chief justice.

The seven U.S. district judges on the court are: Presiding Judge Royce C. Lamberth of Washington; William H. Stafford Jr. of northern Florida; Stanley S. Brotman of New Jersey; Harold A. Baker of central Illinois; Michael J. Davis of Minnesota; Claude M. Hilton of eastern Virginia and Nathaniel M. Gorton of Massachusetts. Lamberth's term expires May 18.

Copyright 2002 Associated Press