- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 30, 2003

The American Civil Liberties Union yesterday filed a lawsuit in federal court in Michigan charging that a provision of the USA Patriot Act is unconstitutional.

The suit takes aim at contested Section 215 of the act, which expands the FBI’s powers in terrorism investigations to obtain a person’s business records and monitor the books they check out of the library.

“Ordinary Americans should not have to worry that the FBI is rifling through their medical records, seizing their personal papers, or forcing charities and advocacy groups to divulge membership lists,” said Ann Beeson, Associate Legal Director of the ACLU and the lead attorney in the lawsuit.

The suit asserts that “by compromising the rights to privacy, free speech and due process, Section 215 violates the First, Fourth and Fifth Amendments of the United States Constitution.”

Citing several Muslim rights organizations including the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations, Ms. Beeson said: “We know from our clients that the FBI is once again targeting ethnic, religious and political minority communities disproportionately.”

Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III are named in the lawsuit, which seeks to have a judge in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan in Detroit declare Section 215 unconstitutional and prevent it from being enforced there.

The suit is the latest effort against the Patriot Act, which was passed overwhelmingly by Congress in the aftermath of September 11.

About 165 communities nationwide have passed resolutions condemning the act, the acronym for which means “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism.”

While the Justice Department did not comment specifically on the ACLU’s lawsuit yesterday, it issued a statement about the Patriot Act and the contested section 215.

“It should be noted that criticism of Section 215 frequently ignores what the provision actually includes,” the statement reads. “Section 215 … which applies to business records in general — not specifically library records — is a section of the law with a narrow scope that scrupulously respects First Amendment rights, requires a court order to obtain any business records, and is subject to congressional reporting and oversight on a regular basis.”

“Section 215 cannot be used to investigate garden-variety crimes or even domestic terrorism [and] goes to great lengths to preserve the First Amendment rights of libraries, bookstores, other affected entities and their patrons,” the Justice Department said. “FBI agents cannot obtain records … unless they receive a court order.”

The FBI consistently has called the Patriot Act key to dismantling terrorist organizations and disrupting potential attacks. Speaking before the Senate Judiciary Committee recently, Mr. Mueller said that before the act, FBI agents were “walled off from intelligence investigations” by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).

The Patriot Act dismantled that wall by scaling down FISA restrictions, paving the way for FBI agents to use secret wiretaps and other sophisticated surveillance equipment to track terrorism and espionage suspects. Mr. Mueller said the “resulting free flow of information and coordination between law enforcement and intelligence has expanded our ability to use all appropriate resources to prevent terrorism.”

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