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ACLU files lawsuit against Patriot Act

From Kevin Bohn
CNN Washington Bureau

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The American Civil Liberties Union Wednesday filed the first lawsuit against the Patriot Act, the anti-terrorism law passed after the attacks of September 11, 2001.

The lawsuit claims one section of the law authorizing searches of records, including those of businesses, libraries and bookstores, is unconstitutional.

"This lawsuit challenges the constitutionality of Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act, which vastly expands the power of the Federal Bureau of Investigation to obtain records and other 'tangible things' of people not suspected of criminal activity," the lawsuit states.

The ACLU filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Michigan on behalf of six mostly Arab and Muslim-American groups.

The groups claim the provisions of the law allowing the searches violates the Constitution's First, Fourth and Fifth amendments.

They include the Muslim Community Association of Ann Arbor, Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services and the Islamic Center of Portland, Masjed As-Saber.

Without directly commenting on the suit, Justice Department spokeswoman Barbara Comstock defended the act in a written statement, saying it was "a long overdue measure to close gaping holes" in the government's anti-terrorism efforts.

She described Section 215 as having "a narrow scope that scrupulously respects First Amendment rights, requires a court order to obtain any business records, and is subject to congressional reporting and oversight on a regular basis."

Justice Department officials say the section can be used only in a narrow set of circumstances, including to obtain foreign intelligence information about people who are neither American citizens nor lawful permanent residents, and to defend the United States against foreign spies or international terrorists.

"Section 215 cannot be used to investigate garden-variety crimes, or even domestic terrorism," Comstock said in her statement.

Those bringing the lawsuit contend it is too easy to get approval for a search under Section 215.

"To obtain a Section 215 order, the FBI need only assert that the records or personal belongings are 'sought for' an ongoing foreign intelligence, counterintelligence, or international terrorism investigation," the lawsuit says.

"The FBI is not required to show probable cause -- or any reason -- to believe that the target of the order is a criminal suspect or foreign agent."

Previously, such broad powers were permitted only in investigations of suspected agents of foreign powers. Section 215 expanded the type of information that can be subpoenaed and broadened the scope to add probes into al Qaeda and other terrorism suspects.

Another controversial element of the Patriot Act involves what are called "sneak and peek" searches of homes and other locations in which the owners are informed only after the search has been conducted.

Last week, the House of Representatives voted to bar the Justice Department from executing such searches under the act.

In a letter last week to House Speaker Rep. Dennis Hastert, R-Illinois, the department said the idea of delaying notification of such searches is "to prevent tipping off terrorists in the war on terror" and is a "long-existing, crime-fighting tool." (Full story)

In February, the ACLU and a coalition of other civil liberties groups asked the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn new, more lenient standards for wiretaps in foreign intelligence investigations.

Before the Patriot Act, foreign intelligence had to be a "primary" purpose of the investigation. Now, foreign intelligence has to be a "significant" purpose. The court overseeing the issuance of wiretaps had ruled against that interpretation last year, saying it was too broad.

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