ACLU Applauds Bipartisan Support For FISA Oversight Bill

February 25, 2003 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON – The American Civil Liberties Union today welcomed bipartisan support in Congress for a bill that would require the Department of Justice to formally disclose information about its use of the controversial secret intelligence court established under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

“Senators on both sides of the aisle deserve praise for supporting this bill,” said Timothy Edgar, an ACLU Legislative Counsel. “While the initial enactment of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act sought to balance the interests of safety and freedom, the Attorney General’s unquenchable thirst for new spying authorities needs to be checked by Congress to ensure that FISA does not become a tool for abuse of power.”

Iowa Senator Charles Grassley is the lead Republican supporter of the bill, called the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Reporting Act of 2003. The legislation, which is also backed by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), takes an important step, the ACLU said, in addressing Americans’ concerns about the extraordinary powers inherent in the secret espionage court.

Specifically, the bill would require public accounting of the number of Americans subjected to surveillance under FISA and the number of times FISA information is used for law enforcement purposes, information that up until now has been kept close to the Department of Justice’s chest despite repeated requests from Congress, the ACLU and other advocacy groups.

“Disclosure of basic information about FISA surveillance is not going to hamper our anti-terrorism efforts, nor will it hamstring Justice’s law enforcement efforts,” Edgar said. “What it will do – as is evidenced by broad support in Congress – is go a long way toward assuaging growing public mistrust of the government.”

In addition to entering the debate on Capitol Hill, FISA has also been at the heart of an ongoing legal battle between privacy activists and the Department of Justice over how much latitude the Attorney General has in spying on Americans. Last May, the lower FISA court, noting numerous surveillance abuses including serious factual and legal errors in over 75 warrant applications, rejected the Attorney General’s bid for expanded spying authority.

While the FISA Court of Review overturned that ruling in November, hopefully the emerging bipartisan support for requiring Ashcroft to disclose his FISA use will succeed in limiting the widespread surveillance of people in the United States, the ACLU said. In an unprecedented legal move last week, a coalition of civil liberties and Arab-American groups including the ACLU urged the U.S. Supreme Court to review the appeals court’s extraordinary decision.

A sign-on letter to Senators Leahy, Grassley and Specter on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Reporting Act of 2003 can be found at:

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