NSA: Some Details Emerging; DOJ Challenges Suit genre: Just Jihad & Polispeak

Slowly we are finding out more about the NSA program of domestic spying that has essentially bypassed the FISA court system to obtain information about Americans.

WASHINGTON (April 29) - The FBI secretly sought information last year on 3,501 U.S. citizens and legal residents from their banks and credit card, telephone and Internet companies without a court's approval, the Justice Department said Friday.

It was the first time the Bush administration has publicly disclosed how often it uses the administrative subpoena known as a National Security Letter, which allows the executive branch of government to obtain records about people in terrorism and espionage investigations without a judge's approval or a grand jury subpoena.

The secretive program leaves many wondering the criteria used to determine which Americans are legitimate targets of the program. Given the number of inquiry letters, reported to be 9,254, the larger question seems to be how many of these investigative letters led to indications of terrorist activity as opposed to nothing more that fishing expeditions into the personal data of American citizens. Critics of the program have repeatedly argued that the same activity could be conducted under the FISA court, thereby providing some checks and balances.

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the same panel that signs off on applications for business records warrants, also approved 2,072 special warrants last year for secret wiretaps and searches of suspected terrorists and spies. The record number is more than twice as many as were issued in 2000, the last full year before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

The FBI security letters have been the subject of legal battles in two federal courts because, until the Patriot Act changes, recipients were barred from telling anyone about them.

Ann Beeson, the associate legal counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, said the report to Congress "confirms our fear all along that National Security Letters are being used to get the records of thousands of innocent Americans without court approval."

At the same time the administration, through the Justice Department moved Friday to block a lawsuit against AT&T that claims the company violated customer privacy. The lawsuit did not name the US government but the administration apparently feels the suit threatens the controversial domestic wiretapping program.

The government, in a filing here late Friday, said the lawsuit threatens to expose government and military secrets and therefore should be tossed. The administration added that its bid to intervene in the case should not be viewed as a concession that the allegations are true.

As part of its case, the EFF said it obtained documents from a former AT&T technician showing that the NSA is capable of monitoring all communications on AT&T's network, and those documents are under seal. The former technician said the documents detail secret NSA spying rooms and electronic surveillance equipment in AT&T facilities.

Daniel DiRito | April 29, 2006 | 7:40 AM
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