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Utah judge joins surveillance court

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Dee Benson

Dee Benson

One of Utah's federal judges will be among the 11 judges serving on an intelligence surveillance court in the nation's capital.

U.S. District Judge Dee Benson has been appointed by U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which is charged by a 1978 statute with granting or denying governmental requests to perform electronic surveillance without a warrant.

The court was expanded by the USA Patriot Act after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Before the USA Patriot Act, the court heard the government's requests to conduct surveillance on "agents of foreign powers" that might be spying on the United States. The act now allows the court to consider surveillance of suspected terrorists who are not necessarily acting for a foreign government.

Benson declined to comment on many of the specifics of his appointment, though he says the court is not the secretive body it is sometimes portrayed to be. However, he said it was necessary to protect the court's consideration of sensitive issues as well as to protect the judges' safety.

Many groups have criticized the USA Patriot Act as too intrusive in Americans' everyday lives.

The American Civil Liberties Union calls the expansion of the court an "end-run around the Fourth Amendment" to the U.S. Constitution, which regulates the government's power of search and seizure.

Benson will serve on the court until May 2011. He said he and the other judges will rotate on a roughly weekly basis and that he will be making the trip to Washington, D.C., about once every 10 weeks.

Since the expansion of the court, the number of secret surveillance warrants obtained from the surveillance court has surpassed the number of wiretaps sought by law-enforcement in cases such as drug trafficking and racketeering.

According to U.S. Justice Department figures released May 1, federal agents sought 1,727 warrants from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in 2003. Only four applications were rejected, and two of those were later revised and approved. In 2001, 934 surveillance court applications were approved.

E-mail: dsmeath@desnews.com