Justice, civil liberties groups battle over spy tactics
Justice spokesman says agency appreciates input from the groups, which are upset over temporary expansion of intelligence law.
Privacy and civil liberties advocates met with Justice Department officials on Monday for what was characterized by some as a contentious conversation about the impact of a recently passed law that enhances the executive branch's authority to spy on U.S. citizens.
The anti-terrorism mandate, which expires in six months unless Congress makes it permanent, was one of the last orders of business before lawmakers adjourned for August. The expansion of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act lets the national intelligence director and the attorney general authorize spying without getting warrants from a special court.
Justice did not provide details about the meeting but said the discussion was held at the behest of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. A spokesman said the agency appreciated the visitors' input and looked forward "to continued dialogue with them as further legislation is debated."
Marc Rotenberg, director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said department officials asked him and representatives from the American Civil Liberties Union, Heritage Foundation and other groups for advice about implementing the new FISA guidelines.
That was tricky because the directives are classified, the FISA court opinion that produced the amendments to the law is classified, and "most of the relevant documents that the civil liberties groups and the oversight committees have sought have been withheld," Rotenberg said.
Lisa Graves, deputy director of the Center for National Security Studies, said the civil libertarians "candidly" shared their concerns, but the administration's "penchant for unnecessary secrecy" continued, including refusing to disclose the interpretation of the definition of "electronic surveillance" under the new powers.
Several participants noted that the selective leaking of intelligence "seems like a particularly bad way to make policy in this area," Rotenberg said. Most recently, House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, disclosed secret FISA court information during an interview with Fox News.
ACLU staffers who attended learned "virtually nothing new," the group's executive director, Anthony Romero, said in a same-day letter to Gonzales. It is unclear what the agency's plans are for using the power to intercept e-mails and telephone calls when one party is on American soil, he said.
"Every question we had, they dodged and weaved, and we got no information out of that meeting that we couldn't have taken out of a press release," added Caroline Fredrickson, the ACLU's top lobbyist. "It was a ridiculous round-and-round conversation."
Brian Walsh, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said he is "worried the administration has gone too far in allowing privacy activists to hinder presidential authority to gather information about al Qaeda and related groups." Many of the demands being made at the meeting were "unreasonable," he said.
"I don't want to see any administration yield up its inherent authority in order to satisfy the current political climate," Walsh said.
The department agreed to host the group again but would not commit to a topic. Graves wanted the follow-up to focus on citizens' Internet privacy.
"Hopefully at the next meeting, there will be responsive answers and key documents that have been requested for months, if not years," she said.