ACLU Seeks Information on Government's Use of Vast New Surveillance Powers

August 21, 2002 12:00 am

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NEW YORK- Saying that the American people have a right to know how the government is using its extraordinary new surveillance powers, the American Civil Liberties Union today filed a Freedom of Information Act request demanding that the Department of Justice provide information about the pervasiveness of domestic spying.

“”This Administration’s penchant for secrecy is matched only by its contempt for accountability to the American people and their elected representatives,”” said Barry Steinhardt, Director of the ACLU’s Technology and Liberty Program.

“”Attorney General Ashcroft bullied a panicked Congress into an overnight revision of the nation’s surveillance laws just six weeks after the September 11 attacks,”” Steinhardt added. “”The nation needs to know if these powers are truly making us any safer or just less free.””

The ACLU made the request jointly with the Electronic Privacy Information Center and the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, which said it was concerned that the new surveillance laws threaten the First Amendment-protected activities of book publishers, investigative journalists, booksellers, librarians, and readers.

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, which was accompanied by a request for expedited processing, seeks information on 14 different categories of agency records, including the number of times the government has:

  • Conducted “”sneak and peek”” searches, which allow law enforcement to enter people’s homes and search their belongings without informing them until long after;
  • Directed a library, bookstore or newspaper to produce “”tangible things,”” e.g, the titles of books an individual has purchased or borrowed or the identity of individuals who have purchased or borrowed certain books;
  • Authorized the use of devices to trace the telephone calls or e-mails of people who are not suspected of any crime;
  • Investigated American citizens and permanent legal residents and sought information on the basis of activities protected by the First Amendment (e.g., writing a letter to the editor or attending a rally).

Jameel Jaffer, an ACLU staff attorney, emphasized that the government’s investigative powers extend to people not suspected of any terrorist activities and that those ordered to provide information are barred from mentioning the investigation to anyone. “”The searches could extend to doctors’ offices, banks and other institutions that, like libraries, were previously off-limits under the law,”” he said.

The ACLU FOIA request comes after a similar request was made in July by House Judiciary Chairman James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) and ranking member John Conyers (D-MI). Following the government’s failure to respond to most of those questions, Rep. Sensenbrenner, whose committee has oversight of the Justice Department, said yesterday that he may take the unusual step of issuing a subpoena to Attorney General John Ashcroft if satisfactory answers to his 50 written questions are not forthcoming by Labor Day.

“”The refusal of the Justice Department to tell Congress how many times it has used its powers is even more unsettling because it naturally leads to the suspicion that it is using them a lot,”” said Chris Finan, President of the American Booksellers group. “”When the FBI is given the power to investigate what people are reading, the American people deserve to know how that power is being used.””

David Sobel, General Counsel to the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said that the request filed today does not seek any information that could compromise a terrorism investigation. “”Much of the information that the Justice Department claims is classified consists of statistical information whose release could not possibly endanger national security or any other legitimate government interest,”” he said.

Under law, the government is required to respond to the FOIA request within 20 working days; requests for expedited processing require a response within 10 calendar days. The groups said they may file a lawsuit if the government does not respond in a timely way.

The attorneys in the case are Ann Beeson, litigation director of the ACLU’s Technology and Liberty Program, Jaffer, and Sobel of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

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