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Inside Politics

Spy court rejects no requests in 2006

Story Highlights

• FISA court gets 2,181 warrant requests, OKs 2,176; rest are withdrawn
• Warrants are required for listening in on international phone calls
• Since 2001, court has rejected just four requests for warrants
• Senator says he's lost faith in attorney general to run program correctly
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The United States' secret surveillance court in 2006 did not reject any of the more than 2,000 government requests for permission to conduct electronic surveillance and physical searches, according to a Justice Department report released Tuesday.

Of the 2,181 applications submitted to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court last year, 2,176 were approved and five were withdrawn; one of those was resubmitted and one was partially accepted.

Since 2001, the year of the disastrous September 11 attacks, only four requests have been denied.

The warrants are used by the intelligence community to investigate suspected terrorists and spies and gather information about other national security threats. They are mandated by FISA, which was enacted in 1978 to regulate the government's ability to spy on U.S. citizens and residents.

The report was released after a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing in which administration officials argued for a proposal to revise the law.

Democrats on the committee tried to get assurances from the officials that President Bush would not sidestep the court and authorize surveillance as he had done previously.

National Intelligence Director Mike McConnell told the senators that "if the president chose to exercise Article II authority, that would be the president's call."

Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wisconsin, responded, "That obviously troubles me."

The administration was sharply criticized when news broke that after September 11, 2001, President Bush authorized the National Security Agency to eavesdrop -- without seeking approval from the FISA court -- on the international calls of Americans when one party is suspected of terrorist links. The president argued he had the constitutional authority to take such action to protect national security.

The administration announced in January that it would begin seeking the FISA court's permission in such cases.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-Rhode Island, on Tuesday questioned whether Attorney General Alberto Gonzales could be counted on to make sure the FISA process was not abused. He cited a recent report on the abuse of national security letters to bypass court warrants in seeking private information.

"The attorney general has thoroughly and utterly lost my confidence," Whitehouse said.

Assistant Attorney General for National Security Kenneth Wainstein said Gonzales is "very conscientious about handling all FISA matters."

The Bush administration's proposal to change FISA includes:

  • Amending the definition of electronic surveillance so that it doesn't specify the kinds of communication that could be monitored;
  • Expanding the list of non-U.S. citizens who can be monitored to include people who are believed to possess significant intelligence information, but whose ties to a foreign country are unclear, and people who are suspected of spreading weapons of mass destruction;
  • Providing liability protection to communications companies that comply with lawful FISA requests;
  • Extending FISA authorizations directed at non-citizens from 120 days to one year;
  • Extending the emergency authorization process from three days to seven days before a FISA court order must be sought; and
  • Removing from FISA's scope foreign-to-foreign communications.

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