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  Daily Briefing  
July 30, 2003

ACLU sues Justice, FBI over broader surveillance powers

By Drew Clark, National Journal's Technology Daily

The American Civil Liberties Union on Wednesday sued the Justice Department and FBI over a provision of a 2001 anti-terrorism law that gives law enforcement easier access to a range of business records, including those of libraries, bookstores, and hospitals.

In press conferences in Detroit joined by Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., ACLU officials released the complaint against the landmark law known as the USA PATRIOT Act. Because the section in question expanded the scope of business records accessible by police and loosened the standards for them to obtain them, the ACLU argues that the law violates the Constitution's bar on unreasonable searches and seizures.

"Ordinary Americans should not have to worry that the FBI is rifling through their medical records, seizing their personal papers, or forcing charities and advocacy groups to divulge membership lists," Ann Beeson, associate legal director of the ACLU, said in a statement.

"We are challenging one particular provision, Section 215, that allows the FBI to go to any organization at all and orders them" to disclose information in a foreign intelligence, terrorism or counter-intelligence investigation, said Jameel Jaffer, an ACLU staff attorney.

Before enactment of the PATRIOT Act, only a narrow class of businessesóincluding airlines, car renters and storage facilitiesówere subject to the disclosure of the records in foreign intelligence investigations. The law broadened the class to all business records. Instead of having to demonstrate "reasonable and articulable" grounds for believing someone is a foreign agent, now Justice need only assert that the records are "sought for" an investigation.

"Section 215 of the PATRIOT Act is a section of the law with a narrow scope that scrupulously respects First Amendment rights, requires a court order to obtain any business records, and is subject to congressional reporting and oversight on a regular basis," Justice spokeswoman Barbara Comstock said in a statement. The section is set to expire in December 2005.

She said the section could only be used in investigations targeting foreign intelligence information about people who are neither American citizens nor lawful permanent residents, or in investigations of foreign spies or international terrorists. But the ACLU's Jaffer said information about U.S. citizens could be obtained as part of such an investigation.

Section 215 has been the subject of protests by libraries and bookstores, who object that they may have to relinquish information about patrons' reading habits without probable cause of a crime. "The problem with Section 215 is that it allows blanket searches, fishing expeditions really," said James Dempsey, executive director of the Center for Democracy and Technology. "Either the courts should rein in Section 215 ... or Congress should amend it."

Rep. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., has introduced legislation to exempt libraries and bookstores from the law. The House last week ruled out of order an amendment to an appropriations bill that was based on Sanders' bill.

A recent House Judiciary Committee review of classified orders under the section prompted no concerns about misuse or abuse.

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  • Attorney General Ashcroft promotes antiterrorism law   (07/28/03)
  • FBI director says agency has become 'flexible and agile'   (07/23/03)
  • GAO finds no rights abuses by FBI, but scope of review limited   (06/19/03)
  • Ashcroft defends department's use of expanded antiterror powers   (06/05/03)
  • Defense, Justice report on surveillance activities   (05/28/03)

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