DOJ Accused of Abusing Wiretap Powers

Several U.S. senators accused the department of over-stepping surveillance powers granted after Sept. 11 attacks.

Senators charged with overseeing the Department of Justice lambasted the agency this morning for over-stepping expanded wiretap powers granted last fall following the Sept. 11 attacks. The harsh criticism from Congress came as the Bush Administration prepares for next weeks launch of an ambitious new strategy for securing cyberspace—another response to the terrorist attacks, and one that is also raising concerns.

The Senate Judiciary Committee met this morning to review the Justice Departments use of expanded electronic surveillance powers enacted in the USA PATRIOT Act, which Congress passed last October. Several committee members lamented that the arcane wiretap provisions were voted in a climate of fear before lawmakers understood the ramifications.

"In our haste to develop legislation to help America, we went too far in some areas," said Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wisc., charging that the Justice Department abused the language of the act. "We must carefully examine what we have done."

The expanded wiretap powers pertain to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which exempts foreign-intelligence gathering from the probable cause requirements and privacy protections that govern wiretaps conducted for criminal prosecutions. Previously, the FBI and other federal agents could use the more lenient FISA standard for investigations when "the purpose" was foreign-intelligence gathering, but the USA PATRIOT Act gave the government greater latitude to use the standard when foreign intelligence gathering is a "significant purpose."

In May, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of Review unanimously knocked down the Justice Departments interpretation (although the decision did not come to light until Aug. 20 in response to an inquiry from the judiciary committee) that the government could use the FISA standard when the sole purpose of an investigation was a criminal prosecution. The departments appeal of the court order is pending.

Calling the governments interpretation "ridiculous," Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Penn., said the FBI and Justice Department are subverting the purpose of the foreign intelligence surveillance laws.

Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., noted that the FISA court determined that the government misled it dozens of times, and the FBI improperly shared intelligence information with prosecutors. "We were asked to show faith in this government and invest it with new authorities," Durbin said. "As we reflect now, we know it was a faith born of fear."

David Kris, associate deputy attorney general, defended the governments position to the committee. "The USA PATRIOT Act changed the 'why of FISA," but it did not change how foreign intelligence surveillance could be conducted, or when, where or on whom, Kris said.