WASHINGTON (AP) – The Supreme Court rejected yesterday a case that challenged how the government spies on terror suspects in America, a blow to people who say the administration has used the Sept. 11 terror attacks to encroach on personal freedoms.

It was the first terrorism appeal to reach the high court. The justices will have other opportunities to hear cases set in motion by Bush administration efforts to give law enforcers latitude to track and hold potential terrorists.

Issues that have inspired the court challenges include government spying, secret detentions, confidential deportation hearings, imprisonment of wartime prisoners without lawyers and access to suspected foreign terrorists held at undisclosed overseas locations.

The administration has argued in courts that national security justifies aggressive terror-fighting strategy, and judges have only limited authority to interfere.

The Supreme Court refused yesterday to be drawn into a dispute over the boundaries of a post-Sept. 11, 2001, law that gave the government broader surveillance authority.

The American Civil Liberties Union and other organizations wanted the justices to consider when the government should be allowed to monitor telephone conversations and e-mail, then use the information to prosecute the monitored person.

ACLU lawyers used an unusual maneuver to get the case to the Supreme Court, filing an appeal on behalf of people who don’t even know they were monitored. The justices would have had to give special permission to allow it. They refused, without comment.

The action was not a ruling on the merits of the ACLU’s case involving the USA Patriot Act, and the issue is expected to return to the high court later.

Attorney General John Ashcroft cheered the court action. “It is vitally important that the government’s intelligence and law enforcement officials coordinate their efforts to protect America from foreign threats to our national security,” Ashcroft said.

Scott Silliman, director of Duke University’s Center on Law, Ethics and National Security, said while the government’s victories in post-Sept. 11 cases outnumber setbacks, it’s too early to tell if the administration will prevail when justices agree to hear a terror case.

At issue in the ACLU case are wiretaps approved by the supersecret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, or “spy court,” which deals with intelligence requests involving suspected spies, terrorists and foreign agents.

The spy court has approved thousands of warrants since it was established by Congress in 1978 and only rarely turns down the government.

In testimony to Congress earlier this month, Ashcroft said there were more than 1,000 applications in 2002 for warrants under the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Act.

Since the 2001 terror attacks, Ashcroft personally has approved more than 170 emergency domestic spying warrants, authorized by the FISA and expanded by the USA Patriot Act.

That’s triple the number of emergency warrants used in the FISA’s previous 23 years. The warrants let authorities tap telephones and fax numbers and conduct physical searches for up to 72 hours before they are subject to the spy court’s review.

“Their appetite for these new spying powers seems to be insatiable,” ACLU associate legal director Ann Beeson said. “We’ll continue to fight to curb the abuse of government surveillance power.”

Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, are sponsoring legislation that would require the Justice Department to account publicly for the surveillance warrants.

The ACLU also is involved in another terrorism case at the Supreme Court, this one over closed hearings for foreigners swept up in terrorism probes.

The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia ruled that the attorney general has the right to close the hearings for reasons of national security, but the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati ruled that hearings should be open. The ACLU appealed the 3rd Circuit decision. The government has until next month to appeal the other.

In addition to that loss, a judge in New York recently told the government that Jose Padilla, a former Chicago gang member accused of plotting with al-Qaida to detonate a “dirty” bomb of radioactive material, can meet with defense lawyers despite government misgivings.

Bush administration victories include a court ruling this month that 650 suspected Taliban and al-Qaida fighters held at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba have no right to hearings in American courts; and a decision in January that the government may detain U.S. citizens captured overseas as enemy combatants without filing charges or allowing them to see attorneys.

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