ACLU Demands Details on Texas Department of Public Safety's Misuse of Federal Resources to Find Missing State Democrats

May 16, 2003 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON – Calling it a clear example of how susceptible expansive government spying authority is to abuse, the American Civil Liberties Union today expressed deep concern over reports that the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) was able to enlist federal surveillance resources in the search for the Texas Democratic lawmakers who left the state to foil Republican redistricting plans.

“”Surveillance authority inevitably follows one rule: if you build it, they will come,”” said Will Harrell, Executive Director of the Texas ACLU. “”Be it accidental or deliberate, the DPS’s success in getting Homeland Security surveillance assets involved in the political hunt for the missing state lawmakers demonstrates the extreme likelihood that unchecked surveillance powers will eventually be abused for political reasons.””

The current flap stems from a controversy that erupted earlier this week when dozens of Texas state democratic lawmakers literally escaped across state lines into Oklahoma in a effort to procedurally block a series of controversial bills being pushed by the new Republican majority in Austin. Republican Gov. Rick Perry then invoked an obscure provision in the state constitution, which allows him to enlist state law enforcement to compel absent lawmakers’ return to the statehouse floor.

According to an article in Thursday’s Fort-Worth Star Telegram, an officer at the Texas public safety department called an operator at the federal homeland security agency’s Air and Marine Interdiction Coordination Center asking for help in locating a plane belonging to former Texas House Speaker Pete Laney, one of the missing legislators.

The Interdiction Coordination Center attempted to locate the plane, but was unsuccessful. According to a statement released by the Homeland Security agency, the coordination center operator was led by the Texas official to believe that the plane might have actually crashed, obligating the Homeland Safety Department to get involved.

“”Time and again after 9/11, we have warned Congress that its expansion of surveillance powers needs to be done with an eye on how best to minimize abuse,”” said Timothy Edgar, an ACLU Legislative Counsel. “”On Capitol Hill, members and staff are beginning to realize that the abuse of intelligence gathering resources for political ends is an ever-present danger, whatever Administration may be in office.””

U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, a Democrat from Austin, and 16 other Democratic members of the Texas delegation to Congress, including Jim Turner, ranking member of the House Select Committee on Homeland Security, signed a letter to Attorney General John Ashcroft, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge and other federal officials demanding an investigation into the matter, a call that was echoed by Senator Joseph I. Lieberman.

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