A U.S. appeals court has ruled that the Justice Department has broad discretion in the use of wiretaps and other surveillance techniques to track suspected terrorists and spies. Monday's decision reverses a lower court ruling.
The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in May had denied Attorney General John Ashcroft's requests for dozens of electronic permits, on the grounds that the Justice Department's Federal Bureau of Investigation had repeatedly misled the tribunal.
But a 56-page opinion announced Monday overturned the secretive court's decision, saying the expanded wiretap guidelines sought by Mr. Ashcroft under the USA Patriot Act are legal and do not violate the Constitution.
Mr. Ashcroft hailed the special review court's decision and said the Justice Department is committed to implementing it. "The court of review's action revolutionizes our ability to investigate terrorists and prosecute terrorist acts," he said.
Attorney General Ashcroft said the measures will facilitate cooperation and coordination between law enforcement and intelligence officials in the war on terror.
"This decision does allow law enforcement officials to learn from intelligence officials, and vice-versa, as a means of sort of allowing the information to flow from one community to another - as long as there are fundamental definitions met, reinforced by this court, realistic options of enforcement and intelligence value. And in doing this, this will greatly enhance our ability to put pieces together that different agencies have. I believe this is a giant step forward," Mr. Ashcroft said.
The American Civil Liberties Union and several other groups had argued that the proposed guidelines would restrict free speech and due process protections by giving the government far greater ability to listen to telephone conversations and read e-mail.
The ACLU expressed disappointment with Monday's ruling, saying it believes the secret court exists only to rubber stamp government applications for intrusive surveillance warrants. The group says it is examining the decision and is considering a number of options, in response.