ACLU Says Rewriting of Domestic Spying Restrictions Gives FBI New Powers Despite Growing Evidence of Analytical Failures

May 30, 2002 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON — The American Civil Liberties Union today said that Attorney General John Ashcroft’s decision to rewrite longstanding restrictions on domestic spying by law enforcement agencies rewards analytical failure with new powers and, by doing so, threatens core civil liberties guaranteed under the Constitution and Bill of Rights. It also demonstrates, the ACLU said, the Attorney General’s seemingly insatiable appetite for new powers that will do little to make us safer but will inevitably make us less free.

“The government is rewarding failure,” said Laura W. Murphy, Director of the ACLU’s Washington National Office. “When the government fails — as it increasingly appears to have done before September 11 — the Bush Administration’s response is to give itself new powers rather than seriously investigating why the failures occurred.”

The rewritten guidelines to be announced today by Attorney General Ashcroft were originally put in place in response to law enforcement excesses in the 1950s and 1960s. They were put in place after the FBI illegally spied on and persecuted the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other political dissenters. In response to congressional investigations into law enforcement abuse, the Justice Department adopted “Attorney General Guidelines” that limited the scope of acceptable surveillance and infiltration of religious and political organizations.

According to media reports, the new guidelines will trash a central protection against government fishing expeditions by ending the requirement that law enforcement agencies have at least a scintilla of evidence — or even a hunch — of a crime before engaging in certain investigative activities. Under the new Ashcroft guidelines, the FBI can freely infiltrate mosques, churches and synagogues and other houses of worship, listen in on online chat rooms and read message boards even if it has no evidence that a crime might be committed.

“Dr. King’s legacy is not just the gains made toward political and social equality,” said Marvin Johnson, an ACLU Legislative Counsel. “His persecution by law enforcement is a necessary reminder of the potential abuse when a government with too long a leash seeks to silence voices of dissent.” An ACLU special report on this aspect of the King legacy can be found online at: /Files/Files.cfm?ID=9999&c=184

Gregory T. Nojeim, Associate Director and Chief Legislative Counsel of the ACLU’s Washington Office, said the new rules fail to recognize the central problems of the investigations before September 11. “Federal law enforcement failed to analyze and act on relevant information,” Nojeim said. “The Attorney General’s solution to that failure is to gather exponentially more information.”

The ACLU said the new rules were the latest power grab by an Administration that seems determined to undermine the bedrock values of liberty, equality and government accountability on which the nation was founded. A newly released ACLU report – Insatiable Appetite: The Government’s Demand for New and Unnecessary Powers After September 11 – which details the government’s new powers can be found online at: /Files/Files.cfm?ID=10403&c=184

The ACLU’s “Brief Analysis of Proposed Changes to Attorney General Guidelines” can be found at:
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