Thursday, August 09, 2007

Civil rights group seeks court's spying rulings

Civil rights group seeks court's spying rulings
By James Vicini

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. civil liberties group said on Wednesday it is asking a federal court to disclose its recent legal opinions on the Bush administration's authority to engage in secret wiretapping of Americans.

The American Civil Liberties Union said such an unusual disclosure was needed because of legislation adopted by the U.S. Congress over the weekend to temporarily expand the government's power to conduct electronic surveillance without a court order in tracking foreign enemy suspects.

After the September 11 attacks, Bush authorized warrantless interception of communications between people in the United States and others overseas if one of the participants had suspected terrorist ties.

In January, Bush put the program under the supervision of the secretive court, called the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

The court's orders from January about the terms of its oversight of the surveillance have never been made public. The ACLU said it seeks disclosure of those orders, though that would be highly unusual. The civil rights group could cite only two other public opinions by the surveillance court.

The administration and some supporters in Congress argued the new legislation was needed in part because of restrictions recently imposed by the court on the government's ability to intercept certain communications, congressional aides said.

The ACLU said it also seeks release of that ruling.

"Publication of these secret court orders is vitally important to the ongoing debate about government surveillance," said Jameel Jaffer, director of the ACLU's National Security Project. "The public has a right to first-hand information about what the court permitted and what it disallowed."

The ACLU said the orders and opinions should be released as quickly as possible, with only those deletions essential to protect information the court determines to be properly classified.

The administration has taken the position that the sealed materials are classified and cannot be released.

In a separate development, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy set an August 20 deadline for the administration to respond to subpoenas relating to warrantless wiretapping issues.

The extension gives the administration nearly an additional month to respond to committee subpoenas for documents relating to the National Security Agency's legal justification for the program, the Vermont Democrat said.