ACLU, Justice Department, Agree on Deadline to Release Surveillance Records

November 27, 2002
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE  

WASHINGTON -- The American Civil Liberties Union today said that the federal government has agreed to respond by January 15 to a Freedom of Information Act request seeking information on the government's use of extraordinary new surveillance powers.

"The information we've asked for is critical to the public's ability to determine whether the expansive surveillance powers are necessary and whether they're being used appropriately,"" said Jameel Jaffer, an attorney with the ACLU's Technology and Liberty Program. 

""The agreement we reached yesterday takes us one step closer to restoring government accountability,"" he added.

The agreement with the government was reached on Tuesday before U.S. District Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle, who is hearing the case. 

In legal papers filed in the case, the ACLU requested records concerning the government's implementation of the USA PATRIOT Act, legislation that was passed in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks. By amending laws such as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), the ACLU said that the USA PATRIOT Act vastly expands the government's authority to obtain personal information about those living in the United States, including United States citizens.

In a letter to the ACLU dated Sept. 3, the Justice Department agreed to respond to the FOIA request speedily, acknowledging that the request concerned "a matter of widespread and exceptional media interest in which there exist possible questions about the government's integrity which affect public confidence."

The ACLU and the Electronic Privacy Information Center filed the lawsuit on October 24 as attorneys for their organizations and for the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression and the Freedom to Read Foundation, citing concerns that the new surveillance laws threaten the First Amendment-protected activities of librarians, library patrons, booksellers and their customers, and investigative journalists.

The Freedom of Information Act request, which was filed on August 21, seeks general information about the use of new surveillance powers, including the number of times the government has:

  • Directed a library, bookstore or newspaper to produce "tangible things," e.g, the titles of books an individual has purchased or borrowed or the identity of individuals who have purchased or borrowed certain books;      
  • Initiated surveillance of Americans under the expanded Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act;      
  • Conducted "sneak and peek" searches, which allow law enforcement to enter people's homes and search their belongings without informing them until long after;      
  • Authorized the use of devices to trace the telephone calls or e-mails of people who are not suspected of any crime;      
  • Investigated American citizens or permanent legal residents on the basis of activities protected by the First Amendment (e.g., writing a letter to the editor or attending a rally).

The attorneys in the case are Jaffer and Ann Beeson of the national ACLU's Technology and Liberty Program, David Sobel of the Electronic Privacy Information Center and Arthur B. Spitzer of the ACLU of the National Capital Area.

The ACLU's legal papers are online at: /cpredirect/17122 and /cpredirect/17123

For more information on the FOIA action, including links to the original request, go to /cpredirect/15424.

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