Move to Allow Snooping on Political and Religious Activity Dropped; ACLU Says Victory May Be Temporary, Calls on Congress to Step In

July 9, 2003 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON – Responding to news reports this morning that a controversial plan to lift restrictions on local and state police spying against Americans who are not suspected of criminal activity has been cancelled, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) today said that the victory is likely a temporary one and called on Congress to ensure that long-standing protections against police snooping on political, social or religious activity are maintained.

“”Put in plain English, some local and state police officials were looking for a way to spy on things like your Sunday church service or your weekly union meeting,”” said Timothy Edgar, an ACLU Legislative Counsel. “”Thankfully, the police groups have dropped the plan, but unfortunately the respite could be short-lived. Congress needs to make sure that when law enforcement snoops into our lives, it’s only doing so if we’ve done something wrong.””

As reported in this morning’s Congressional Quarterly Homeland Security, the Global Intelligence Working Group, composed of state and local police working on an information sharing plan under a grant from the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Assistance, was set to propose weakening Title 28, Part 23 of the Code of Federal Regulations, which governs federally funded state or local police criminal intelligence units. The change would have altered the standard for state and local surveillance of political, religious or social activity from “”reasonable suspicion”” of criminal activity to a lower, and more amorphous standard of “”reasonable indication.””

Draft “”PATRIOT 2″” legislation by the Justice Department that was leaked in January also contained a similar provision that would have ended all consent decrees against domestic spying by local police departments. The decision by the police groups to drop the plan is another nail in the coffin of PATRIOT 2, the ACLU said.

Although the police groups have dropped the plan, it could go through if Ashcroft’s Justice Department decides to get behind it. Asked why the plan had been dropped, Indiana Police Superintendent Melvin J. Carraway, told CQ: “”It was simply because we had gotten the information that there wasn’t going to be any movement to change the present situation of that regulation.”” Carraway heads the advisory panel pushing the change.

This planned easing of limitations on police spying resembles other similar initiatives by the Justice Department. Most notably, the proposal smacks of Attorney General John Ashcroft’s decision to relax the “”Attorney General Guidelines,”” which were put in place in the mid-1970s after Congress found evidence of decades of illegal police surveillance and harassment of social activists, including the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Essentially, the ACLU said, the regulation change would authorize the creation of full-fledged, modern day versions of the Cold War-era “”Red Squads,”” local police units that worked – frequently outside the law – to track down and suppress political dissent.

“”New ‘Red Squads’ won’t make us safer,”” Edgar said. “”Making it easier for the police to spy on activists just keeps their eyes focused on the good guys, not the bad guys.””

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