Ashcroft Yields to Public Pressure, Declassifies Personal Records Snooping; ACLU Calls for Full Disclosure of Government Spying Powers

September 17, 2003 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON – In response to reports today that Attorney General John Ashcroft has caved under growing public pressure to declassify information about how his department is using 2001’s USA PATRIOT Act, the American Civil Liberties Union today called the Justice Department’s concession a victory for civil liberties, but said that much more is necessary before the full story of how much liberty has been sacrificed in the name of security can be known.

“”Attorney General Ashcroft is finally waking up to the fact that the American people are demanding greater accountability and transparency of his actions,”” said Anthony D. Romero, ACLU Executive Director.

Reportedly, the Attorney General has agreed to declassify information about how often the highly controversial Section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act has been used.

“”This is a small step – many more are necessary,”” said Laura Murphy, Director of the ACLU Washington National Office. “”It raises the question: why now? If before, as the Attorney General has said, disclosing this and similar information would harm the war on terror, what makes it okay today? How political is this move?””

“”Let’s be clear, whether they’ve snooped around in 16 libraries or 1600 — having that power without meaningful judicial oversight is still wrong in America,”” Murphy added.

The section, which has been roundly criticized by lawmakers from both sides of the aisle as well as an unusual coalition of right and left wing groups, permits the FBI to request court orders – under meaningless judicial review – requiring the disclosure of highly personal information about Americans’ reading habits, Internet surfing, medical histories, business activities and even genetic information – among other things – and imposes a gag order on those who are forced to give up the records.

The Attorney General’s concession comes, notably, less than three months after the ACLU filed the first-ever challenge to the PATRIOT Act, which targets this specific provision. The lawsuit, filed on behalf of several community and advocacy groups, demands specific information about how Section 215 is being used and seeks an injunction against these government spy powers.

Also, in October 2002, the ACLU and other groups filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit asking a federal court to order the Department of Justice to account for its use of the extraordinary new surveillance powers under the Patriot Act, including Section 215. The Department of Justice has not only refused to release basic statistics about how often these powers are being used, it has reacted to increased public concern about sensitive records, such as library and bookstore records, by falsely claiming these new powers apply only to foreign spies or terrorists. In actuality, this limit is one of the safeguards that the USA PATRIOT Act lifted.

“”From day one, the Attorney General has stonewalled our requests for even the most basic information about how these powers are being used to spy on Americans,”” said Ann Beeson, ACLU Associate Legal Director. “”He’s done so by citing national security concerns and even implied that such requests are unpatriotic. We ask again: if it’s now safe and patriotic to release the records, then why not disclose how other expansive powers are being used?”””

To view the ACLU’s webfeature on the USA PATRIOT Act, go to:

For more information on the ACLU’s lawsuit challenging section 215 of the USA PATRIOT Act, go to:

For more information on the ACLU’s FOIA lawsuit on government surveillance under the PATRIOT Act, go to:

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