Friday, February 17, 2006

Judge orders response on eavesdropping records

Judge orders response on eavesdropping records

By James Vicini

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Justice Department must respond within 20 days to requests by a civil liberties group for documents about President George W. Bush's domestic eavesdropping program, a federal judge ruled on Thursday.

The ruling was a victory for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, which sued the department under the Freedom of Information Act in seeking the release of the documents.

U.S. District Judge Henry Kennedy ordered the department to finish processing the group's requests and produce or identify all records within 20 days.

"Given the great public and media attention that the government's warrantless surveillance program has garnered and the recent hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee, the public interest is particularly well served by the timely release of the requested documents," he said.

Kennedy also ordered the department to give the center a document index and declaration stating its justification for withholding any documents within 30 days.

David Sobel, the group's general counsel, said, "The court's opinion vindicates the public's right to know about an extremely invasive and potentially illegal government program."

Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed a similar lawsuit, said, "Now the Justice Department must turn over documents showing the extent of the ... warrantless domestic surveillance program."

The Justice Department said its lawyers were reviewing the judges's ruling.

"The Department of Justice has been extremely forthcoming in providing documents and information about the administration's legal authorities for the terrorist surveillance program and the department will continue to meet its obligations under FOIA," spokeswoman Tasia Scolinos said.

The Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Center sought documents from four Justice Department offices, including the office of the attorney general, after The New York Times first reported the eavesdropping program's existence on December 16.

It argued that the department played a key role in authorizing, implementing and overseeing the program, which involves surveillance by the National Security Agency.

Records sought by the group include an audit of the program, a "checklist" guide used to determine whether an individual's phone or e-mail messages could be monitored, documents showing how information gleaned through eavesdropping had been used, and other legal opinions about the program.

The program, adopted by Bush after the September 11 attacks, allows the monitoring of international communications into and out of the United States of persons linked to al Qaeda or related terrorist groups.

Disclosure of the program has sparked criticism from Democrats and some Republicans, with many lawmakers questioning whether Bush overstepped his authority. Civil liberties groups have filed lawsuits challenging the program's legality.

The Justice Department had told the electronic privacy center it would process its requests for documents quickly, but never gave an anticipated completion date.

(Additional reporting by Deborah Charles and David Morgan)