The federal government submitted 1,745 applications in 2011 to a secret intelligence court to investigate -- mostly through wiretapping -- suspected cases of terrorism and espionage, a 10.5 percent increase over the year before, according to a Justice Department report released Friday.
The annual report said that 1,676 applications to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court were solely for electronic surveillance. The rest asked permission to conduct physical searches or a combination of wiretapping and physical searches. The FISA court approved every surveillance warrant.
The federal government submitted 1,579 FISA applications in 2010, all but 68 of them for electronic surveillance.
"Unfortunately -- or rather, by design -- these statistics are opaque and any interpretation of their significance is speculative," Steven Aftergood, director of the Project on Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, said in an email to The Huffington Post. He noted that some investigations involved multiple authorizations, so it is difficult to gauge variations year to year. "These numbers don't tell us what kind of surveillance is going on or why -- just that there is a lot of it," he said.
The FISA court was created under the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and has been used for decades to authorize covert government wiretaps in foreign intelligence investigations. Months after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, President George W. Bush secretly bypassed the FISA court when he authorized the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on Americans and others in the country in pursuit of the "war on terror." The law was updated in 2008, but still remains controversial among civil liberties groups.
In addition to the FISA applications, the FBI in 2011 requested 16,511 national security letters, a form of administrative subpoena that was expanded under the Patriot Act and allows the FBI access to customer records from banks, Internet service providers, telephone companies and others. That was sharply down from 2010, when the government requested 24,287 such letters.
Department of Justice spokesman Dean Boyd said that the number of applications "varies from year-to-year and depends on myriad of different factors."
"The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) provides extremely valuable authorities to protect the nation from terrorism and other national security threats," he said in an email. "The extensive oversight measures used to implement these authorities ensure that they are used lawfully and in a manner consistent with privacy and civil liberties interests."
Homeland Security Today cited anonymous government counterterrorism intelligence officials who attributed the increase in FISA surveillance applications to thwarted domestic and foreign terrorist plots against the United States. It also said the increase was "in response to materials seized in relation to the raid on Osama Bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan and the resulting investigations."
But Ginger McCall of the Electronic Privacy Information Center declined to speculate on the reasons behind the rise in applications or the decline in national security letters.
"All that we can tell from the report is that the FISA numbers continue to rise and the FISA Court has, once again, failed to deny a single application. The NSL numbers are heartening, but still remain on par with Bush Administration numbers," she said in an email. "This is the reason why increased transparency is important ... A more detailed annual reporting of [the court's] activities -- to both Congress and the public -- would allow us to make a more thorough evaluation of whether or not the surveillance activities are appropriate and necessary."
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