(Washington Post) The American Civil Liberties Union disclosed yesterday that it filed a lawsuit three weeks ago challenging the FBI’s methods of obtaining many business records, but the group was barred from revealing even the existence of the case until now.
The lawsuit was filed April 6 in U.S. District Court in Manhattan, but the case was kept under seal to avoid violating secrecy rules contained in the USA Patriot Act, the ACLU said. The group was allowed to release a redacted version of the lawsuit after weeks of negotiations with the government.
“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.”
A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment on the case.
The ACLU alleges that a section of the act is unconstitutional because it allows the FBI to request financial records and other documents from businesses without a warrant or judicial approval. The group also says such requests, known as “national security letters,” are being used much more broadly than they were before the Patriot Act.
The bureau has issued scores of the letters since late 2001 that require businesses to turn over electronic records about finances, telephone calls, e-mail and other personal information, according to previously released documents. The letters, a type of administrative subpoena, may be issued independently by FBI field offices and are not subject to judicial review unless a case comes to court.
The ACLU’s complaint focuses on the use of national security letters to obtain information held by “electronic communication service providers.” The group says the letters could force Internet providers to turn over names, screen names, e-mail addresses and other customer information without proper notice to the people involved.
The lawsuit names as defendants Attorney General John D. Ashcroft, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III and FBI Senior Counsel Marion E. “Spike” Bowman. A second plaintiff has joined the ACLU in filing the lawsuit, but that plaintiff’s identity has been redacted from the public copy of the complaint.