WASHINGTON - Federal applications for a special U.S. court to authorize secret surveillance rose sharply after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, and the panel required changes to the requests at an even greater rate, government documents show.
President George W. Bush acknowledged this month he had secretly ordered the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on the international phone conversations and e-mail of Americans suspected of links to terrorists without approval from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
The domestic spying order has set off a furious debate over whether the war on terrorism gives Bush a blank check when it comes to civil liberties and whether the president, in fact, broke the law.
The Justice Department's reports to the U.S. Congress on the surveillance court's activities show the Bush administration made 5,645 applications for electronic surveillance and physical searches from 2001 through 2004, the most recent year for which figures are available. In the previous four years, the court received a total of 3,436.
The 11-judge panel modified 179 of the Bush administration's requests. By contrast, only one was modified in the preceding four years. The court has reportedly handled almost 20,000 applications since it was set up and has rejected only a handful.
Reasons for the modifications were not stated and could range from minor alterations to more substantive changes.
The highly classified court was set up by the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, in the wake of Cold War spy fears and President Richard Nixon's misuse of U.S. intelligence agencies to spy on the anti-Vietnam War movement and other political dissidents.
The Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations has filed a Freedom of Information request with federal agencies seeking government records relating to Bush's executive orders authorizing surveillance of Americans.
The group said on Tuesday it also filed a similar request with the Justice and Energy Departments for information on the secret radiation monitoring of Muslim sites in six U.S. cities, first reported by U.S. News and World Report.
The magazine reported last week that more than 100 sites, including private homes, were monitored without court approval as required by FISA.
"We are concerned that, under this secretive program, our government has overstepped constitutional bounds by intruding on private property without any probable cause or valid court orders," CAIR's national legal director, Arsalan Iftikhar, said in a statement.