April 29, 2004

We guess we shouldn't be surprised.

But we are.

The Washington Post reports that the American Civil Liberties Union filed a suit against part of the Patriot Act, but was prevented from revealing that fact to the pubic by — you guessed it — the Patriot Act. In that lawsuit, the ACLU is challenging some of the ways that the FBI uses the act to obtain business records, but the civil liberties group was only allowed to announce the suit after three weeks of negotiations with the feds.

One of the provisions of the Patriot Act broadened the ability of the FBI to request financial records and other documents from businesses using 'national security letters' instead of court warrants. Issued by the FBI itself, without judicial approval, these letters can require businesses to hand over electronic records dealing with finances, telephone calls, e-mail, and other information. The only time national security letters have to be approved by a judge is when evidence gathered using a letter is involved in a case in court.

So basically the FBI can gather information now, and worry about whether its search was legal later. Maybe.

One of the ways that the FBI uses national security letters is to gather information from internet service providers. (Or, in legal language, 'electronic communication service providers.') In its lawsuit, he ACLU claims that these letters can force providers to turn over names, screen names, email addresses, and other customer information without proper notice to the people involved. The ACLU is asking the court to rule this provision of the Patriot Act unconstitutional.

"It is remarkable that a gag provision in the Patriot Act kept the public in the dark about the mere fact that a constitutional challenge had been filed in court," Ann Beeson, the ACLU's associate legal director, said in a statement. "President Bush can talk about extending the life of the Patriot Act, but the ACLU is still gagged from discussing details of our challenge to it."

The current lawsuit doesn't mark the first time that the ACLU has been worried about the feds' use of national security letters. A bit over a year ago, the ACLU filed a Freedom of Information Act request to force the FBI to reveal statistics on their use of these letters. Check out this April 2003 post on our other blog for details on the request and on some of the documents that the ACLU had already pried loose from the FBI.

Posted by Magpie at April 29, 2004 05:23 PM | Civil Liberties | Technorati links |