Thursday, September 30, 2004

Judge strikes down key surveillance provision of Patriot Act

Thursday, September 30, 2004

Ruling a blow to Patriot Act
Judge strikes down key surveillance provision of law


NEW YORK -- A federal judge struck down a key surveillance provision of the USA Patriot Act yesterday, ruling that it broadly violated the Constitution by giving federal authorities unchecked powers to obtain private information.

The ruling, by Judge Victor Marrero of federal court in Manhattan, was the first to uphold a challenge to the surveillance sections of the act, which were adopted in October 2001 to expand the powers of the federal government in national security investigations.

The ruling assails one piece of the law, finding that it violates both free speech and unreasonable search protections, and is likely to provide fuel for other court challenges.

The ruling came in a case brought by the American Civil Liberties Union against a kind of subpoena created under the act, known as a national security letter. Such letters required Internet service companies to provide personal information about their subscribers and barred them from disclosing to anyone that they had received the subpoena.

Such subpoenas could be issued without court review, under provisions that seemed to bar those who received it from discussing it with a lawyer.

Marrero vehemently rejected the provision, saying that it was unique in American law in its "all-inclusive sweep" and had "no place in our open society."

He ordered that his ruling would not take effect for 90 days, to give the Bush administration time to appeal.

Anthony Romero, executive director of the ACLU, called the ruling a "stunning victory against John Ashcroft's Justice Department."

The ruling comes as Congress is debating additions to the Patriot Act to reflect the recommendations of the Sept. 11 commission. It does not affect many sections of the act that give the government enhanced powers to control immigration, conduct searches and investigate financial support for terrorism.

The ACLU suit was brought on behalf of John Doe, an Internet provider firm that received a national security letter from the FBI, but was barred under its terms from revealing its name. Until the judge revealed the facts of the case in his ruling, the ACLU had been reluctant to state publicly that it was representing a firm that had received a national security letter.

The companies were required to provide customers' names, addresses and credit card data, and also details of their Internet use. It is not clear how many of the subpoenas have been issued in the last three years. But a list obtained by the ACLU covering the 14 months after the act was passed was six pages long, although all the companies' names were blacked out.