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
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.