The Bush administration has suffered a major legal setback in its efforts to share intelligence information derived from wiretaps on suspected terrorists inside the United States.
The secretive federal court responsible for approving wiretaps on suspected terrorists and spies has rejected a request by Attorney General John Ashcroft for new powers to share intelligence information with criminal prosecutors.
The court said that the request to more widely share intelligence information with criminal investigators was, "not reasonably designed" to safeguard the privacy rights of Americans.
The opinion from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court was issued in May but only made public on Thursday by Congress. The court also said that it had identified more than 75 cases in which it says it was misled by federal investigators seeking approval for the electronic surveillance of suspected terrorists.
The Justice Department is appealing the ruling and says the special intelligence court is unnecessarily restricting investigative powers approved by Congress in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks. But the Justice Department has also initiated its own internal investigation of the surveillance requests in an attempt to determine if abuses occurred during both the Bush and Clinton administrations.
Civil liberties advocates welcomed the court ruling. "This administration, and Mr. Ashcroft in particular, the attorney general, is playing fast and loose with constitutional protections of privacy and other civil rights," said commentator Joseph Fromm, a guest this week, on VOA's Issues in the Newsprogram.
At a recent news conference, Attorney General Ashcroft said he remains committed to using all the legal tools at his disposal to track down and stop terrorists. "I'm deeply concerned about the civil liberties of all Americans," he said. "But we will not fail to use any tool that can promote apprehension and disruption of the networks that caused these damages and prevent a similar occurrence in the future."
Legal analysts predict the debate over the administration's investigative tactics will go on as long as the war on terrorism continues. Gary Gildin is a law professor at Pennsylvania State University. "It appears now that terrorism is not going to be a problem that just disappears with any sort of a quick fix," said Gary Gildin, a law professor at Pennsylvania State University. "The interesting question, or the fear is, that the relaxation of civil liberties incursions is going to be equally longstanding."
The secretive intelligence court was created in 1978 to review government requests for electronic surveillance on suspected spies and terrorists. The court approves about 1,000 requests each year.