OFF THE WIRE
By MARIA DINZEO
SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - On the 10th anniversary of the USA Patriot Act - Wednesday - a nonprofit watchdog sued the Department of Justice for its refusal to release documents on its interpretation and use of Section 215 of the law, which allows the FBI to obtain a court order for "any tangible thing'' that may be related to a counter-terrorism investigation.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation claims the Department of Justice and its creature, the FBI, have been using Section 215 to clandestinely collect information on people suspected of terrorism.
"Tangible things" the government may seize include Internet browsing records and driver's license numbers. People being watched under the Patriot Act may be prevented from learning about the order against them.
After DOJ attorneys disclosed in 2009 that the Section 215 orders were being used to support a "'sensitive collection program,'" several U.S. senators condemned the operation during legislative hearings, which are detailed in the EFF's complaint.
"'Congress is granting powers to the Executive Branch that lead to abuse, and frankly shield the Executive Branch from accountability,'" Sen. Mark Udall said in May 2011. "'I cannot believe that we are once again being rushed into rubber-stamp policies that threaten the liberty of the American people.'"
Former Sen. Russ Feingold said at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in September 2009, "'before we decide whether and in what form to extend these authorities, Congress and the American people deserve to know at least basic information about how they have been used.'"
At an October 2009 Senate Judiciary Committee meeting on the legality of the government's broadened authority under the Patriot Act, Sen. Ronald Durbin said that the government's use of Section 215 "'is unfortunately cloaked in secrecy. Some day that cloak will be lifted, and future generations will ask whether our actions today meet the test of a democratic society: transparency, accountability and fidelity to the rule of law and our Constitution.'"
The Electronic Frontier Foundation says that in June 2011 it sent a Freedom of Information Act request for all DOJ records from Jan. 1, 2004 onward, seeking the types of "tangible things" the FBI has been collecting, and documents related to any "'sensitive collection program.'"
The FBI acknowledged receipt of the request, but has yet to turn over the documents.
The EFF asks the court to order the government to release the records immediately. EFF staff attorney Jennifer Lynch was unavailable for comment, but said in a statement, "Senators have said publicly that the Justice Department is misleading the American people about the use of the Patriot Act, but the DOJ continues to hide this information from public scrutiny."
The ACLU filed a similar complaint against the Justice Department, also on Wednesday, Oct. 26, in Manhattan Federal Court.