FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
WASHINGTON - In response to a Washington Post report this morning that Attorney General John Ashcroft is planning to further relax long-standing measures established after Watergate to protect people living in America from overbroad federal intelligence investigations, the American Civil Liberties Union today urged Congress to keep a keen eye on whether an increasingly unchecked Justice Department is snooping into lawful political activity.
"Liberals remember Watergate -- conservatives remember Waco and Ruby Ridge," said Timothy Edgar, an ACLU Legislative Counsel. "All were the result of overzealous - and unchecked - federal power. Giving the FBI carte blanche to initiate highly invasive and super-secret intelligence investigations, without any indication of actual wrongdoing, invites a repetition of these past abuses."
The new set of guidelines - a heavily redacted version of which was obtained and reported on by the Washington Post - are apparently designed to allow detailed monitoring of both citizens and non-citizens without any indication of ongoing or intended espionage. Previously, internal guidelines - put in place after the abuses of Watergate and the FBI's McCarthy-era COINTELPRO political spying initiative - required the FBI to initiate a preliminary inquiry, using limited means, to satisfy itself that there existed sufficient grounds to begin an full-blown investigation using all the intrusive surveillance tools at its disposal.
Since 9/11, however, the Department of Justice has continually tried to weaken such safeguards against the investigation of innocent Americans. These new guidelines further diminish these internal checks on abuse.
Notably, the court that grants orders in foreign intelligence cases -- the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance (or FISA) court - operates under a sharply diminished standard of proof, far less than probable cause. The ACLU said the new guidelines, coupled with the FISA court's more laissez-faire attitude to federal surveillance, makes it much easier for agents to spy on lawful political activity.
Under the current administration, the relaxed guidelines could likely be used to target, for instance, anti-war protestors. However, the new set of guidelines should also concern conservatives, the ACLU said, given that under a future left-leaning presidency, it could also be used to target lawful militia groups or anti-abortion activists.
The new foreign intelligence surveillance guidelines come at a time when debate over the highly controversial USA PATRIOT Act has reached a fever pitch, with pressure growing in Congress for a narrowing of the 2001 anti-terrorism measure and increasing evidence that the law is being abused by overly aggressive federal prosecutors. Just this week, the Law Vegas Review-Journal revealed that prosecutors used the PATRIOT Act, which was sold to Congress solely as an anti-terror measure, to snoop into the finances of a topless bar owner there.
"Checks and balances in the enforcement of our criminal law maintains our democracy by preventing the persecution of law-abiding Americans, especially those engaged in legitimate political dissent," Edgar said. "The revised guidelines run counter to this basic principle, which ensures both our safety and our freedom."