ABFFE Sues Justice Dept. Over Freedom of Information Request

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The American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (ABFFE) has joined three other free expression groups in suing the Department of Justice to learn how many subpoenas have been issued to bookstores, libraries, and newspapers under the USA Patriot Act. The suit was filed on October 24 and comes after a lack of response from the Department of Justice to a Freedom of Information Act (FIOA) request, filed in August, for the information. (For related story, click here.) The FIOA request was filed by ABFFE, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC).

The American Library Association's Freedom to Read Foundation (FTRF) is the other plaintiff in the lawsuit, which was filed in U.S. District Court in Washington.

"Revealing how many subpoenas have been issued will not threaten national security. It will tell us how often the Justice Department is using the very broad power it received in the Patriot Act to monitor First Amendment-protected activity," ABFFE President Chris Finan said.

In addition to the number of bookstore and library subpoenas, the lawsuit seeks information about how the Department of Justice is employing its vastly expanded power to conduct searches and electronic surveillance. Under the Patriot Act, the FBI can obtain court orders to monitor anyone it thinks may have information relevant to a foreign intelligence investigation, including American citizens who are not suspected of engaging in criminal acts. (For related story, click here.)

ABFFE, ACLU, and EPIC had requested an expedited review of their FOIA request. The Department of Justice granted the expedited status without indicating whether it intended to turn over the information. After waiting more than a month for the response, ABFFE and the other groups concluded the time had come to file the lawsuit. The FOIA authorizes the filing of lawsuits when government authorities refused to release information or fail to take action on requests for information.

The House Judiciary Committee had originally requested the information in June as part of its effort to monitor the implementation of the Patriot Act. When the Department of Justice declared that the information was "classified" and would not be turned over to the committee, Representative F. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI), the chair of the committee, reportedly threatened to subpoena Attorney General John Ashcroft to appear before the committee. (For related story, click here.) However, recent news reports indicate that the Department of Justice has supplied the committee with classified summaries of the information it was seeking, and Representative Sensenbrenner has apparently dropped his legal threat.

The complaint notes that Section 215 of the Patriot Act amends U.S. law so that, for the first time, it can be used to obtain, "circulation records from libraries, purchase records from bookstores, academic records from universities, medical records from hospitals, or e-mail records from Internet service providers." Under the provisions of the Patriot Act, the government does not have to show probable cause to gain approval for the requests. Rather, the complaint notes, the government "need only assert that its request is 'for an authorized investigation … to protect against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities.'"