In a decision that will greatly expand the government's authority to eavesdrop on Americans, a federal appeals court ruled Monday that the Justice Department has broad powers to use wiretaps and other means to combat terrorism.
A special three-judge panel overturned a decision by the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in May that certain surveillance provisions in the Patriot Act infringed on citizens' privacy.
Monday's decision means the government will face fewer hurdles when it seeks to listen to telephone conversations and read the e-mail of people who are suspected of espionage or terrorism. Intelligence agents and criminal prosecutors also will be able to share information more freely.
The special appeals court, which consisted of three federal appellate judges named by William Rehnquist, the chief justice of the United States, ruled Monday that the expanded powers sought in the Patriot Act are "constitutional because the surveillances it authorizes are reasonable."
Attorney General John Ashcroft called the decision "a victory for liberty, safety and the security of the American people." He said it "revolutionizes our ability to investigate terrorists and prosecute terrorist acts."
The American Civil Liberties Union and several other groups contend the ruling will harm free speech and due process protections by giving the government far greater ability to listen to telephone conversations, read e-mail and search private property.
"We are deeply disappointed with the decision, which suggests that this special court exists only to rubber-stamp government applications for intrusive surveillance warrants," said Ann Beeson, who argued the case for the ACLU.
Armed with the ruling, Ashcroft announced a number of immediate steps, including development of a computer system to help investigators get quick court approval for surveillance; doubling of the number of FBI attorneys working with surveillance applications; and designation of one lawyer in each U.S. attorney's office as the local point person for these cases.
Justice Department lawyers who seek authorization for wiretaps or surveillance for suspected spies or terrorists must go to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. That court was created under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 to oversee sensitive law enforcement activities.
The court typically works in secret. But it threw open its doors earlier this year when it not only rejected for the first time a government request for broader surveillance powers but also made its opinion public. In that unprecedented and deeply critical decision, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court said there had been 75 instances of surveillance-warrant abuse during the Clinton administration.
The Justice Department appealed the court's decision to the three-member Court of Review, which swung into action for the first time. The judges who ruled Monday are Ralph B. Guy Jr., a semiretired judge on the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati; Edward Leavy, a semiretired judge on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco; and Laurence Hirsch Silberman, a semiretired judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. All were appointed to the bench by former President Ronald Reagan.
An appeal to the Supreme Court was unlikely. The Justice Department is the sole party to the case, and as the winner had no plans to appeal. The ACLU and others would have to find another option, such as a criminal case involving intelligence surveillance, to ask the high court for a hearing.
"This is a major constitutional decision that will affect every American's privacy rights, yet there is no way anyone but the government can automatically appeal this ruling to the Supreme Court," said Beeson of the ACLU.
Reaction was mixed on Capitol Hill. Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, called the ruling despicable and contended it adds to what liberals consider the Bush administration's sustained assault on civil liberties.
"Piece by piece, this administration is dismantling the basic rights afforded to every American under the Constitution," Conyers said.
But Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, a senior Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the decision "should untie the government's hands and help prevent terrorist attacks." Grassley added, however, that lawmakers must keep a close watch to guard against possible abuses.
The Justice Department had argued to the court that the Patriot Act, which was passed last year in the weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, gave it new police-surveillance powers.
The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court ruled that the Justice Department was trying to tear down the wall between prosecutors, who bring criminal charges, and intelligence agents, who may not bring criminal charges but must cast a wide net to track spies and terrorists.
Accordingly, prosecutors who want court permission to conduct wiretaps have to persuade judges that there is "probable cause" to believe the suspect was involved in criminal activity. Intelligence agents appearing before the surveillance court have a lower burden of proof, so traditionally there have been bars to sharing information between agents working on espionage cases and those working on criminal cases.
The Court of Review said in its 56-page decision Monday that the "wall" based on the difference in agents' functions was a fiction.
"We think that the FISA as passed by Congress in 1978 clearly did not preclude or limit the government's use or proposed use of foreign intelligence information, which included evidence of certain kinds of criminal activity, in criminal prosecution," the unanimous ruling said.
"This idea of a wall is dangerous," said Robert Turner, associate director of the Center for National Security Law at the University of Virginia. "Yes, we have to protect civil liberties, but one of our civil liberties is to stay alive."
The review court sent the case back to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court with instructions to grant the applications as requested.
_ Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.