WASHINGTON – The government does not need a search warrant when it taps the phones or checks the e-mails of suspected terrorists who are outside the United States, even if Americans might be overheard on these calls, a special intelligence court ruled in an opinion released Thursday.
The decision confirms what the Bush administration officials and some legal experts have long said. While the Constitution protects the privacy rights of Americans against “unreasonable searches and seizures,” this principle does not bar U.S. spy agencies from conducting surveillance aimed at foreign targets abroad.
The newly released opinion, combined with the arrival of the Obama administration, might quell some of the controversy over wiretapping.
In 2005, President George W. Bush reluctantly admitted he had authorized the National Security Agency to intercept international phone calls in the search for possible terrorists – and without a warrant. This appeared to violate the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The Cold War-era measure allowed government spying in the United States, but only if agents obtained a warrant from a special court within the Justice Department.
The Justice Department said it was pleased the ruling had confirmed the constitutionality of the foreign surveillance.
However, the American Civil Liberties Union criticized the ruling and said it could leave Americans vulnerable to having their calls monitored.
“The government should not be able to nullify Fourth Amendment rights simply by invoking national security,” said Jameel Jaffer, director of the ACLU’s National Security Project.