Advocacy Groups' Patriot Act FOIA Fight Continues in Federal Court

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version

Four advocacy groups' Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit against the government over how it is using the widespread surveillance powers it has been granted under the USA Patriot Act continues.

On Friday, April 4, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (ABFFE), Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), and Freedom to Read Foundation (FTRF) filed a reply brief in Federal Court in Washington, D.C., that disputes the Department of Justice's (DOJ) claim that it adequately responded to the groups' FOIA request.

The groups contend that the DOJ is improperly classifying material that should be in the public domain and that the blacked-out documents released by the government under the FOIA request indicate that the government is aggressively using its new spying powers granted by the Patriot Act.

The groups reply brief is part of a litigation process that began last year. The pl aintiffs first filed an FOIA Request on August 21, 2002, seeking general information about the government's use of new surveillance powers. For example, the groups wanted to know how many subpoenas have been issued to bookstores, libraries, and n ewspapers under Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act. At the time, the groups requested expedited processing.

With no response forthcoming from the DOJ, the groups filed a lawsuit on October 24. On November 13, the groups filed a prelimina ry injunction asking that a federal court order the Justice Department to respond immediately to the FOIA lawsuit, at which point the DOJ agreed to respond in January of 2003 -- though it did not provide the groups with documents until March 3.

The FBI documents that were disclosed through FOIA were, for the most part, blacked out, noted Jameel Jaffer, an attorney with the ACLU's Technology and Liberty Program. Nonetheless, the groups contend that the sheer length of the documents reveal that the Bureau is "aggressively wielding a disturbing power" provided by the Patriot Act, according to an ACLU press release. (To see samples of the FBI documents released in response to the groups' FOIA request, click here.)

Jaffer noted to BTW that documents pertaining to Section 215 were "relatively short."

On March 21, the groups filed a motion for summary judgment in Federal Court in Washington, D.C. in which they challenged the government's "refusal to disclose aggregate, statistical data concerning implementation of controversial new surveillance powers authorized by Congress…. While the DOJ has now released a number of records in response to Plaintiffs' request, it has asserted that certain responsive records are exempt from disclosure."

"The government responded [to the motion for summary judgment] that they'd give n us all the documents and that the rest are classified," Jaffer explained. "We're disagreeing [with the reply brief filed on Friday, April 4]."

Oral arguments are expected in the next few weeks. --David Grogan