Advocacy Groups Hit Justice Department with Freedom of Information Request

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On August 21, two days after House Judiciary Committee Chair F. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wisconsin) threatened to subpoena Attorney General John Ashcroft over the Justice Department's refusal to divulge information on the USA Patriot Act, civil liberties groups filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the department.

The American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (ABFFE), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) filed the FOIA request to discover how many subpoenas have been issued to bookstores, libraries, and newspapers under the Patriot Act. Additionally, the request seeks information about how the Justice Department is employing its vastly expanded power to conduct searches and electronic surveillance.

"The Patriot Act gives the Justice Department the power to investigate the reading habits of American citizens," said Chris Finan, ABFFE's president. "We want to make sure this power isn't abused."

ABFFE, ACLU, and EPIC have requested an expedited review of their FOIA request, which gives the government 10 calendar days to respond. If the request is denied or no decision is announced within that time, the three groups will consider filing a lawsuit to obtain the information.

In June, the House Judiciary Committee sent the Justice Department a list of 50 written questions regarding the use of its expanded powers under the Patriot Act. On July 26, the Justice Department sent a partial reply to the Committee's questions, answering some of the questions, but refusing to respond to other questions that it deemed had "classified answers." [Click here for a related story.] -- David Grogan