Nov. 18, 2005 – Privacy rights advocates won another round in court this week, after a judge ordered the Federal Bureau of Investigations to obey federal law and deliver information on certain provisions of the USA PATRIOT Act provisions to the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) in a timely manner.
The order comes months after the FBI granted EPICâ€™s expedited request for documents about the use of secret investigative tools expanded under the Patriot Act and compels the FBI to follow a set schedule to turn over thousands of documents pertaining to surveillance activities.
In her ruling Wednesday, US District Judge Gladys Kessler noted that Department of Justice officials estimate there are about 18,000 pages of documents that pertain to EPICâ€™s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, but have only turned over about 250 pages, despite testimony of one records official stating that the FBI should be able to process around 1,000 pages a month. The FBI agreed to EPICâ€™s request nearly eight months ago.
Expressing the courtâ€™s opinion that the Justice Department and FBI appear to be stalling or incompetent, Kessler said: "Almost seven months after the FBI agreed to process the plaintiffâ€™s FOIA request on an expedited bases, the government was still unable to give even an estimate as to how far along in the review process it was. Nor could the government provide an estimate as to when processing would be complete."
Documents already released to EPIC by the FBI include the recent disclosure that the FBI was investigating hundreds of abuses of the secrecy statutes. The organization asked for information on several provisions of the Patriot Act which were to sunset at the end of the year.
Lawmakers were working on a bill extending most of the provisions of the Patriot Act until late yesterday in a joint Senate-House conference that will produce the final legislation. Early reports predict that the most intrusive of the actâ€™s provisions will be retained for a seven-year period.
Among the items slated for limited extensions is the FBIâ€™s expanded use of national security letters (NSLs), which compel certain record-keeping companies and organizations to turn over information on customers and carry an automatic gag order for the recipient. Earlier this month, the Washington Post reported that the FBI is issuing around 30,000 NSLs a year. The letters can be internally approved by the FBI and need no court approval.
Several rights groups are pushing for last-minute action to oppose the bill, including EPIC and the American Civil Liberties Union. A group of three lawmakers from each major party â€“ calling themselves collectively the "Safe Act Six" â€“ joined calls for defeat of the current bill yesterday.
In a letter to Senate leaders, Republican Senators John Sununu (New Hampshire), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Larry Craig (Idaho) joined Democratic Senators Russell Feingold (Wisconsin), Ken Salazar (Colorado) and Dick Durbin (Illinois) in warning: "The conference report, in its current form, is unacceptableâ€¦ If further changes are not made, we will work to stop this bill from becoming law."