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U.S. National - AP
Justice Dept. Wins Wiretap Ruling
14 minutes ago
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By CURT ANDERSON, Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) - The Justice Department (news - web sites) has broad discretion in the use of wiretaps and other surveillance techniques to track suspected terrorists and spies, a federal appeals court panel ruled Monday.
In a 56-page opinion overturning a May decision by the ultra-secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the three-judge panel said the expanded wiretap guidelines sought by Attorney General John Ashcroft (news - web sites) under the new USA Patriot Act law do not violate the Constitution.
The special panel from the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals (news - web sites) for the District of Columbia ordered the lower court to issue a new ruling giving the government the powers it seeks.
The American Civil Liberties Union (news - web sites) and several other groups had argued that Ashcroft's proposed guidelines would unfairly restrict free speech and due process protections by giving the government far greater ability to listen to telephone conversations and read e-mail.
"No one is questioning the government's authority to prosecute spies and terrorists," said Ann Beeson, litigation director of the ACLU's technology and liberty program. "But we do not need to waive the Constitution to do so."
It's unclear whether the ACLU or other groups will appeal the case to the Supreme Court.
The intelligence court is charged with overseeing sensitive law enforcement surveillance by the U.S. government. It's May ruling was the first-ever substantial defeat for the government on a surveillance issue.
The Justice Department had argued that the spy court had "wholly exceeded" its authority and that Congress clearly approved of the greater surveillance authority when it passed the Patriot Act a month after the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
The changes permit wiretaps when collecting information about foreign spies or terrorists is "a significant purpose," rather than "the purpose," of an investigation. Critics at the time said they feared the government might use the change as a loophole to employ espionage wiretaps in common criminal investigations.
The spy court had concluded that Ashcroft's proposed rules under that law were "not reasonably designed" to safeguard the privacy of Americans.
But the three-judge panel overturned that, saying the new law's provisions on surveillance "certainly come close" to meeting minimal constitutional standards regarding searches and seizures. The government's proposed use of the Patriot Act, the judges concluded, "is constitutional because the surveillances it authorizes are reasonable."
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