ACLU Applauds House Introduction of FISA Oversight Bill

June 11, 2003 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON – The American Civil Liberties Union today welcomed the introduction in the House of Representatives of 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

“The more open the government, the stronger our democracy,” said Timothy Edgar, an ACLU Legislative Counsel. “While the initial use of the FISA court was an appropriate compromise between the interests of safety and freedom, the USA PATRIOT Act’s expansion of federal spying authority needs to be checked by Congress to ensure that the extraordinary latitude of FISA warrants not become a tool for the abuse of power.”

Introduction of the House legislation was announced today at a joint news conference featuring Reps. Joseph Hoeffel (D-PA) and John Conyers (D-MI). The Senate introduced its own bill, with broad bipartisan support, in February.

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.

Ashcroft’s justification for stonewalling such disclosure requests – that the information is classified for national security reasons – is particularly weak, the ACLU said.

“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 the Justice Department to disclose its FISA use will succeed in limiting the widespread surveillance of people in the United States, the ACLU said.

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