Tuesday, December 20, 2005

+ ACLU: New Documents Show FBI Targeting Environmental and Animal Rights Groups Activities as ‘Domestic Terrorism’ (12/20/2005)

Comment: Amerikan Fascism is sly, subtle and scientific. These are merely tips of the frozen fascist iceberg and we are surely ignorant of all that is unknown to us and yet to be revealed.

All humane beings must gather the courage to boldly face, clearly comprehend and transform connected reality! ~ Peta de Aztlan

Key Study Websites:
The Nazi Hydra in America

FBI Electronic Reading Room

+ ACLU: New Documents Show FBI Targeting Environmental and Animal Rights Groups Activities as ‘Domestic Terrorism’ (12/20/2005)

CONTACT: media@aclu.org

Additional Documents Indicate FBI Scrutiny of Anti-war Gathering

NEW YORK -- According to new documents released today by the American Civil Liberties Union, the FBI is using counterterrorism resources to monitor and infiltrate domestic political organizations that criticize business interests and government policies, despite a lack of evidence that the groups are engaging in or supporting violent action.

The ACLU said that the documents released today on Greenpeace, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) show the FBI expanding the definition of “domestic terrorism” to include citizens and groups that participate in lawful protests or civil disobedience.

“The FBI should use its resources to investigate credible threats to national security instead of spending time tracking Americans who criticize government policy, or monitoring groups that have not broken the law,” said Ann Beeson, Associate Legal Director of the ACLU. “Labeling law abiding groups and their members ‘domestic terrorists’ is not only irresponsible, it has a chilling effect on the vibrant tradition of political dissent in this country.”

The documents were obtained by the ACLU after the organization filed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to discover whether the FBI’s partnerships with local law enforcement in Joint Terrorism Task Forces has resulted in increased surveillance of political and religious activity.

Among the documents released today were more than 100 pages of FBI files on PETA. Multiple documents indicate ongoing surveillance of PETA-related meetings and activities, including a “Vegan Community Project” event at the University of Indiana during which the group distributed vegetarian starter kits to students and faculty, an animal rights conference in Washington, DC that was open to the public, and a planned protest of Cindy Crawford’s decision to become a llama fur spokesperson.

The ACLU said that FBI surveillance of mainstream organizations involved in public education campaigns has allowed the bureau to maintain files with names and other information on law-abiding Americans who support or participate in events organized by the groups. One file released by the FBI in response to a request for ADC’s records included a contact list for students and peace activists who participated in a 2002 conference at Stanford University, which focused on ending U.S. sanctions against Iraq.

“The FBI should be investigating real terrorists, not monitoring controversial ideas,” said Ben Wizner, an ACLU staff attorney. “Americans shouldn’t have to fear that by protesting the treatment of animals or participating in non-violent civil disobedience, they will be branded as 'eco-terrorists' in FBI records.”

The ACLU said that some of the documents suggest infiltration by undercover “sources” at animal rights meetings and conferences. One highly redacted “Domestic Terrorism Operations Unit” document suggests that the FBI is using PETA’s interns for surveillance, while others describe attempts to locate and interview “several former disgruntled PETA employees.” Similarly, one cryptic e-mail kept in a Greenpeace file describes a source who “offers a unique opportunity to gain intelligence on activists who show a clear predisposition to violate the law.”

At times, the documents show aggressive attempts by the FBI to link PETA, Greenpeace and other mainstream organizations to activists associated with the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) or Earth Liberation Front (ELF), said the ACLU. PETA, in particular, is repeatedly and falsely singled out as a “front” for militant organizations although in at least one document released today the FBI appears to acknowledge that it has no evidence to back up such assertions.

“These documents show the erosion of freedom of association and speech that Americans have taken for granted and which set us apart from oppressive countries,” said Jeff Kerr, General Counsel for PETA. “McCarthyist tactics used against PETA and other groups that speak out against cruelty to animals and exploitive corporate and government practices are un-American, unconstitutional and against the interests of a healthy democracy.”

The documents released by the ACLU also include FBI observances on supposed Communist leanings of the Catholic Workers Group (CWG). In an e-mail to the counterterrorism unit, an unidentified official wrote, “the Catholic Workers advocated peace with a Christian and semi-communistic ideology.” In another document, an agent writes, “Based on the author’s interpretation of comments made by various CWG protestors, CWG also advocates a communist distribution of resources.”

ACLU affiliates in 20 states have filed similar requests on behalf of more than 150 groups and individuals. Earlier this month, the ACLU of Colorado revealed that the FBI had tracked the names, license plate numbers and vehicle registration information of participants at a peaceful protest of the North American Wholesale Lumber Association in Colorado Springs in June 2002.

Key Link: FBI documents released by the ACLU:

FOIA: Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF)
Download + Open File in Browser

ACLU Launches Nationwide Effort to Expose Illegal FBI Spying on Political and Religious Groups (12/2/2004)


F.B.I. Watched Activist Groups, New Files Show: Published: December 20, 2005

WASHINGTON, Dec. 19 - Counterterrorism agents at the Federal Bureau of Investigation have conducted numerous surveillance and intelligence-gathering operations that involved, at least indirectly, groups active in causes as diverse as the environment, animal cruelty and poverty relief, newly disclosed agency records show.

Stephen Crowley/The New York Times
President Bush said at a news conference Monday that a "two-minute phone conversation" could lead "to the loss of thousands of lives."

'01 Resolution Is Central to '05 Controversy (December 20, 2005)
Bush Account of a Leak's Impact Has Support (December 20, 2005) F.B.I. officials said Monday that their investigators had no interest in monitoring political or social activities and that any investigations that touched on advocacy groups were driven by evidence of criminal or violent activity at public protests and in other settings.

After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, John Ashcroft, who was then attorney general, loosened restrictions on the F.B.I.'s investigative powers, giving the bureau greater ability to visit and monitor Web sites, mosques and other public entities in developing terrorism leads. The bureau has used that authority to investigate not only groups with suspected ties to foreign terrorists, but also protest groups suspected of having links to violent or disruptive activities.

But the documents, coming after the Bush administration's confirmation that President Bush had authorized some spying without warrants in fighting terrorism, prompted charges from civil rights advocates that the government had improperly blurred the line between terrorism and acts of civil disobedience and lawful protest.

One F.B.I. document indicates that agents in Indianapolis planned to conduct surveillance as part of a "Vegan Community Project." Another document talks of the Catholic Workers group's "semi-communistic ideology." A third indicates the bureau's interest in determining the location of a protest over llama fur planned by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

The documents, provided to The New York Times over the past week, came as part of a series of Freedom of Information Act lawsuits brought by the American Civil Liberties Union. For more than a year, the A.C.L.U. has been seeking access to information in F.B.I. files on about 150 protest and social groups that it says may have been improperly monitored.

The F.B.I. had previously turned over a small number of documents on antiwar groups, showing the agency's interest in investigating possible anarchist or violent links in connection with antiwar protests and demonstrations in advance of the 2004 political conventions. And earlier this month, the A.C.L.U.'s Colorado chapter released similar documents involving, among other things, people protesting logging practices at a lumber industry gathering in 2002.

The latest batch of documents, parts of which the A.C.L.U. plans to release publicly on Tuesday, totals more than 2,300 pages and centers on references in internal files to a handful of groups, including PETA, the environmental group Greenpeace and the Catholic Workers group, which promotes antipoverty efforts and social causes.

Many of the investigative documents turned over by the bureau are heavily edited, making it difficult or impossible to determine the full context of the references and why the F.B.I. may have been discussing events like a PETA protest. F.B.I. officials say many of the references may be much more benign than they seem to civil rights advocates, adding that the documents offer an incomplete and sometimes misleading snapshot of the bureau's activities.

"Just being referenced in an F.B.I. file is not tantamount to being the subject of an investigation," said John Miller, a spokesman for the bureau.

"The F.B.I. does not target individuals or organizations for investigation based on their political beliefs," Mr. Miller said. "Everything we do is carefully promulgated by federal law, Justice Department guidelines and the F.B.I.'s own rules."

A.C.L.U officials said the latest batch of documents released by the F.B.I. indicated the agency's interest in a broader array of activist and protest groups than they had previously thought. In light of other recent disclosures about domestic surveillance activities by the National Security Agency and military intelligence units, the A.C.L.U. said the documents reflected a pattern of overreaching by the Bush administration.

"It's clear that this administration has engaged every possible agency, from the Pentagon to N.S.A. to the F.B.I., to engage in spying on Americans," said Ann Beeson, associate legal director for the A.C.L.U.

"You look at these documents," Ms. Beeson said, "and you think, wow, we have really returned to the days of J. Edgar Hoover, when you see in F.B.I. files that they're talking about a group like the Catholic Workers league as having a communist ideology."

The documents indicate that in some cases, the F.B.I. has used employees, interns and other confidential informants within groups like PETA and Greenpeace to develop leads on potential criminal activity and has downloaded material from the groups' Web sites, in addition to monitoring their protests.

In the case of Greenpeace, which is known for highly publicized acts of civil disobedience like the boarding of cargo ships to unfurl protest banners, the files indicate that the F.B.I. investigated possible financial ties between its members and militant groups like the Earth Liberation Front and the Animal Liberation Front.

These networks, which have no declared leaders and are only loosely organized, have been described by the F.B.I. in Congressional testimony as "extremist special interest groups" whose cells engage in violent or other illegal acts, making them "a serious domestic terrorist threat."

In testimony last year, John E. Lewis, deputy assistant director of the counterterrorism division, said the F.B.I. estimated that in the past 10 years such groups had engaged in more than 1,000 criminal acts causing more than $100 million in damage.

When the F.B.I. investigates evidence of possible violence or criminal disruptions at protests and other events, those investigations are routinely handled by agents within the bureau's counterterrorism division.

But the groups mentioned in the newly disclosed F.B.I. files questioned both the propriety of characterizing such investigations as related to "terrorism" and the necessity of diverting counterterrorism personnel from more pressing investigations.

"The fact that we're even mentioned in the F.B.I. files in connection with terrorism is really troubling," said Tom Wetterer, general counsel for Greenpeace. "There's no property damage or physical injury caused in our activities, and under any definition of terrorism, we'd take issue with that."

Jeff Kerr, general counsel for PETA, rejected the suggestion in some F.B.I. files that the animal rights group had financial ties to militant groups, and said he, too, was troubled by his group's inclusion in the files.

"It's shocking and it's outrageous," Mr. Kerr said. "And to me, it's an abuse of power by the F.B.I. when groups like Greenpeace and PETA are basically being punished for their social activism."

Bush vigorously defends domestic spying +
By TERENCE HUNT, AP White House Correspondent

Last Updated 10:03 am PST Tuesday, December 20, 2005

WASHINGTON (AP) - Accused of acting above the law, President Bush forcefully defended a domestic spying program on Monday as an effective tool in disrupting terrorists and insisted it was not an abuse of Americans' civil liberties.

Bush said it was "a shameful act" for someone to have leaked details to the media. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said it was "probably the most classified program that exists in the United States government" - involving electronic intercepts of telephone calls and e-mails in the U.S. of people with known ties to al-Qaida and other terrorist groups.

At a news conference, Bush bristled at the suggestion he was assuming unlimited powers.

"To say 'unchecked power' basically is ascribing some kind of dictatorial position to the president, which I strongly reject," he said angrily in a finger-pointing answer. "I am doing what you expect me to do, and at the same time, safeguarding the civil liberties of the country."

Despite Bush's defense, there was a growing storm of criticism from Congress and calls for investigations, from Democrats and Republicans alike. West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, released a handwritten letter expressing concern to Vice President Dick Cheney after being briefed more than two years ago.

Rockefeller complained then that the information was so restricted he was "unable to fully evaluate, much less endorse these activities." He registered concern about the administration's direction on security, technology and surveillance issues.

Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said he would ask Bush's Supreme Court nominee, Samuel Alito, his views of the president's authority for spying without a warrant.

"Where does he find in the Constitution the authority to tap the wires and the phones of American citizens without any court oversight?" asked Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said Bush's interpretation of the Constitution was "incorrect and dangerous."

Bush said he had asked, "Do I have the legal authority to do this? And the answer is, absolutely,"

The spying uproar was the latest controversy about Bush's handling of the war on terror, after questions about secret prisons in Eastern Europe, secrecy-cloaked government directives, torture allegations and a death toll of more than 2,150 Americans in Iraq. As a result, Bush's approval rating has slumped as has Americans' confidence in his leadership.

Appealing for support, Bush used the word "understand" 25 times in a nearly hour-long news conference. "I hope the American people understand - there is still an enemy that would like to strike the United States of America, and they're very dangerous," he said. Similarly, he said he hoped that blacks who doubt his intentions "understand that I care about them."

Bush challenged Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y. - without naming them - to allow a final vote on legislation renewing the anti-terror Patriot Act, saying it was inexcusable to let it expire. "I want senators from New York or Los Angeles or Las Vegas to go home and explain why these cities are safer" without the extension, he said.

Reid and Clinton both helped block passage of the legislation in the Senate last week.

Bush noted that U.S. intelligence agencies have been faulted for failing to "connect the dots" about threats to the nation's security. He said the Patriot Act and the spying program help take care of that problem.

Reid fired back: "The president and the Republican leadership should stop playing politics with the Patriot Act," he said in a statement that added he and other Democrats favor a three-month extension of the expiring law to allow time for a long-term compromise.

The legislation has cleared the House but Senate Democrats have blocked final passage and its prospects are uncertain in the congressional session's final days. Scolded by Bush, key lawmakers reopened talks by setting out the rough parameters of a deal: Extending the act for one to four years.

Bush said the electronic eavesdropping program, conducted by the National Security Agency, lets the government move faster than the standard practice of seeking a court-authorized warrant under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. "We've got to be fast on our feet, quick to detect and prevent," the president said.

The president said the authority to bypass the court derived from the Constitution and Congress' vote authorizing the use of military force after the 2001 terror attacks.

"I can fully understand why members of Congress are expressing concerns about civil liberties," the president said. "I want to make sure the American people understand, however, that we have an obligation to protect you, and we're doing that, and at the same time, protecting your civil liberties."

Former Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle said he was briefed by the White House between 2002 and 2004 but was not told key details about the scope of the program. "Even with some of the more troublesome - and potentially illegal - details omitted, I still raised significant concern about these actions," Daschle said.

Daschle's successor, Reid, said he received a single briefing earlier this year and that important details were withheld. "We need to investigate this program and the president's legal authority to carry it out," Reid said.

Senate Intelligence Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., has been regularly briefed and believes the program is consistent with U.S. laws and the Constitution, his office said. A statement said he was talking with Senate leaders about how to expand Congress' oversight.

Bush was cool toward investigations, saying, "An open debate would say to the enemy, 'Here is what we're going to do.' And this is an enemy which adjusts." He said the administration had consulted with Congress more than a dozen times.

On another issue, Bush acknowledged that a pre-war failure of intelligence - claiming Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction - has complicated the U.S. ability to confront other potential emerging threats such as Iran.

"Where it is going to be most difficult to make the case is in the public arena," Bush said. "People will say, if we're trying to make the case on Iran, 'Well, if the intelligence failed in Iraq, therefore, how can we trust the intelligence on Iran?'"

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Democrats say they didn't back wiretapping
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Cheney defends presidential powers
Analysis: Bush ties surveillance to 9/11 law
Lawmakers to ask Alito about spy views
Timeline of events in the history of the NSA
President Bush's Dec. 19 press conference (55:55)
President Bush's Dec. 18 Oval Office speech on Iraq (16:39)
AP: President Bush defends allowing the NSA to eavesdrop (:29)
Bush: Phone intercepts are an effective anti-terror tool (:18)
Bush: America faces a dangerous enemy (:10)
AP: Senate Democrats react quickly to Bush's defense of the wiretap program (:21)
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., refutes Bush's contention that he has authority to order wiretaps (:12)
Published 7:31 am PST Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2005


Democrats say they didn't back wiretapping
By KATHERINE SHRADER, Associated Press Writer
Last Updated 10:03 am PST Tuesday, December 20, 2005

WASHINGTON (AP) - Some Democrats say they never approved a domestic wiretapping program, undermining suggestions by President Bush and his senior advisers that the plan was fully vetted in a series of congressional briefings.

"I feel unable to fully evaluate, much less endorse, these activities," West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller, the Senate Intelligence Committee's top Democrat, said in a handwritten letter to Vice President Dick Cheney in July 2003. "As you know, I am neither a technician nor an attorney."

Rockefeller is among a small group of congressional leaders who have received briefings on the administration's four-year-old program to eavesdrop - without warrants - on international calls and e-mails of Americans and others inside the United States with suspected ties to al-Qaida.

The government still would seek court approval to snoop on purely domestic communications, such as calls between New York and Los Angeles.

The White House brushed aside Democrats' contention that they weren't provided enough information on the program. "They were briefed and informed," White House press secretary Scott McClellan said, repeatedly refusing to address Democrats' specific complaints. "Congress has an important oversight role."

Some legal experts described the program as groundbreaking. And until the highly classified program was disclosed last week, those in Congress with concerns about the National Security Agency spying on Americans raised them only privately.

In a statement Tuesday, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, said Rockefeller had tools to wield influence if he had concerns about the program, such as requesting committee or legislative action.

Flying Tuesday from Pakistan to Oman on an overseas trip, Vice President Dick Cheney said it's no accident the United States has gone four years without a terror attack. "I believe in a strong, robust executive authority, and I think that the world we live in demands it," Cheney said.

Accused of acting above the law, Bush on Monday issued a forceful defense of the program he first authorized shortly after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. His senior aides have stressed the program was narrowly targeted at individuals with a suspected link to al-Qaida or affiliated extremist groups. And Bush said it was "a shameful act" for someone to have leaked details to the media.

He bristled at the suggestion at a White House news conference that he was assuming unlimited powers.

"To say 'unchecked power' basically is ascribing some kind of dictatorial position to the president, which I strongly reject," he said angrily. "I am doing what you expect me to do, and at the same time, safeguarding the civil liberties of the country."

Despite the defense, there was a growing storm of criticism in Congress and calls for investigations, from Democrats and Republicans alike. Until the past several days, the White House had only informed Congress' top political and intelligence committee leadership about the program that Bush has reauthorized more than three dozen times.

The spying uproar was the latest controversy about Bush's handling of the war on terror. It follows allegations of secret prisons in Eastern Europe and of torture and other mistreatment of detainees, and an American death toll in Iraq that has exceeded 2,150.

The eavesdropping program was operated out of the NSA, the nation's largest and perhaps most secretive spy operation. Employees there appreciate their nicknames: No Such Agency or Never Say Anything.

Decisions on what conversations to monitor are made at the Fort Meade, Md., headquarters, approved by an NSA shift supervisor and carefully recorded, said Gen. Michael Hayden, the principal deputy director of intelligence.

"The reason I emphasize that this is done at the operational level is to remove any question in your mind that this is in any way politically influenced," said Hayden, who was NSA director when the program began.

Since the program was disclosed last week by The New York Times, current and former Congress members have been liberated to weigh in.

Former Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., who was part of the Intelligence Committee's leadership after the 9/11 attacks, recalled a briefing about changes in international electronic surveillance, but does not remember being told of a program snooping on individuals in the United States.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., received several briefings and raised concerns, including in a classified letter, her spokeswoman Jennifer Crider said.

Former Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle said he, too, was briefed by the White House between 2002 and 2004 but was not told key details about the scope of the program.

Daschle's successor, Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he received a single briefing earlier this year and that important details were withheld. "We need to investigate this program and the president's legal authority to carry it out," Reid said.

Republicans, too, were skeptical.

Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has promised hearings next year and said he would ask Bush's Supreme Court nominee, Samuel Alito, his views of the president's authority for spying without a warrant.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., poses for his official Senate photo.
MI Photo/Sen. Jay Rockefeller's Web site

Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., right, accompanied by Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., gestures during a Capitol Hill news conference on Monday to respond to President Bush's earlier comments where the president said he approved domestic spying on suspected terrorists without court orders. "Where does he find in the Constitution the authority to tap the wires and the phones of American citizens without any court oversight?" said Levin.

• See additional images

AP Photo/Lauren Victoria Burke

ACLU says FBI misuses terror powers
Last Updated 10:03 am PST Tuesday, December 20, 2005

By TED BRIDIS, Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) - The American Civil Liberties Union accused the FBI of misusing terrorism investigators to monitor some domestic political organizations, despite apparently disparate views within the FBI whether some groups supported or committed violent acts.
Citing hundreds of pages of heavily-censored documents it obtained from the FBI under the Freedom of Information Act, lawyers for the ACLU described this disputed use of terrorism resources as the latest illustration of intensified surveillance aimed toward Americans.

"Using labels like domestic terrorists to describe peaceful protest activity can chill robust political debate in this country," ACLU lawyer Ben Wizner said in New York. The ACLU said it will publish the FBI reports it obtained on its Web site Tuesday.

In one case, government records show the FBI launched a terrorism investigation of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals in Norfolk, Va., despite acknowledgment by one FBI official that, "The FBI does not consider PETA a terrorist organization."

The FBI responded that it conducts its investigations appropriately - subject to U.S. laws and Justice Department guidelines. It said the ACLU mischaracterized some passing references to political groups in FBI files to suggest those groups were under investigation; in other cases the FBI confirmed it was acting on tips tying groups to alleged illegal activities.

"You end up in FBI files with your name and your group's name because you're doing stuff," Assistant Director John Miller said. "By and large, the FBI has done a pretty good job sticking to those rules."

The FBI documents indicate the government launched its terrorism investigation of PETA because the group was "suspected of providing material support and resources to known domestic terrorism organizations," including the Animal Liberation Front and Earth Liberation Front.

The PETA investigation began in August 2003 and lasted at least 12 months, according to documents. Miller could not say whether the investigation was concluded.

The FBI reports also linked PETA to the government's investigation of a bombing outside the Shaklee Cosmetic Corp. in Pleasanton, Calif., in September 2003. The FBI said Shaklee conducted animal testing of cosmetic products and its parent company was a frequent target of campaigns by PETA and another group, Stop Huntington Animal Cruelty.

Separately, the FBI files said PETA protested a rodeo in Las Vegas in December 2003 with representatives from the Animal Liberation Front and Earth Liberation Front.

PETA's lawyer, Jeffrey S. Kerr, denied his organization has provided support or resources to the Animal Liberation Front and Earth Liberation Front, calling such claims "tired old allegations." Kerr said any terrorism investigation was "a scurrilous waste of resources."

"This is really an abuse of power," Kerr said. "PETA and other groups are really being targeted because we are being social activists and engaging in free speech. This is un-American and unconstitutional and contrary to the interests of any definition of a healthy democracy."

The ACLU said the FBI documents also suggest that federal terrorism investigators infiltrated the Washington-based American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. One document, sent to an FBI counterterrorism unit in Los Angeles, describes a list of attendees from the group at a conference in Stanford, Calif., to protest sanctions against Iraq in May 2002.

Other FBI documents obtained by the ACLU describe efforts in May 2001 by Greenpeace and the Los Angeles-based Catholic Workers Group to disrupt missile tests in California. The FBI said the Catholic Workers Group "advocates a communist distribution of resources."

Related Stories
ACLU repository of FBI files


Analysis: Bush ties surveillance to 9/11 law
By TONI LOCY, Associated Press Writer
Last Updated 10:03 am PST Tuesday, December 20, 2005
WASHINGTON (AP) - To justify creating a domestic spying program, the Bush administration is relying on a law Congress passed in the chaotic days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that authorizes the president to wage war against al-Qaida and its supporters.
In doing so, the administration bypassed a secret court system that for nearly 30 years has monitored the government's use of electronic surveillance to gather foreign intelligence on U.S. soil.

But is the administration on solid legal ground in using warrantless electronic surveillance for more than four years?

Legal experts aren't so sure and are questioning the legal advice President Bush received, not so much in the days after Sept. 11, when U.S. authorities were bracing for a possible second wave of attacks. Instead, legal experts worry that what seemed appropriate then may not be appropriate now.

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said Monday the administration believes Congress gave Bush the authority to use "signals intelligence" - wiretaps, for example - to eavesdrop on international calls between U.S. citizens and foreigners when one of them is a suspected al-Qaida member or supporter.

The law Gonzales is relying on is the Authorization to Use Military Force, which Congress passed and Bush signed a week after 19 hijackers crashed four commercial jets into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania, killing nearly 3,000 people.

The administration's interpretation allowed the government to avoid requirements under the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The act established procedures that an 11-member court used in 2004 to oversee nearly 1,800 government applications for secret surveillance or searches of foreigners and U.S. citizens suspected of terrorism or espionage.

"I think they were aggressive," said Pepperdine University law professor Douglas Kmiec, who served in the Justice Department during the Reagan and first Bush administrations.

"Were they right? Here, I think context matters. Within six months, 12 months of the attacks, I think that the AUMF (authorization law) would have been a basis for legal authority," he said. "But that diminishes the further we are from the attacks."

Michael Nardotti, a former Army judge advocate general, said the administration may need to release more information about attacks that the spying program prevented. "I don't think passage of time should be the guide," he said. "It should be the continuing assessment of the threat."

Kmiec said Bush clearly believes he did the right thing and deserves credit for keeping some members of Congress informed. "But he was entirely reliant on the quality of legal advice he received," Kmiec said.

Gonzales, who was White House counsel when the program was created, said just because Congress' war authorization doesn't mention electronic surveillance doesn't mean the law doesn't allow it. He cited a 2004 plurality opinion by Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor to back him up. Although Congress never included the word "detention" in the war authorization, O'Connor said lawmakers gave the president power to detain enemy soldiers - even U.S. citizens - captured on the battlefield.

"That's ridiculous," said Harvard University law professor Laurence Tribe. "O'Connor wasn't saying that anything not mentioned (in the authorization) is OK ... To use that to say it's OK to eavesdrop on people ... is to stretch the authorization completely beyond recognition."

Congress passed the surveillance law after public outcry over abuses during the Nixon administration, which spied on American anti-war and civil rights protesters.

Since Sept. 11, the FISA court's work has increased dramatically. In 2004, the government filed 1,758 applications to conduct secret electronic surveillance or searches, compared to 932 in 2001.

The secretive court rarely denies a government request for surveillance. But the judges sometimes force government agents to continue gathering evidence until the court is satisfied there is a basis for such surveillance: that a subject is "an agent of a foreign power."

Evidence gathered by warrantless wiretaps or searches generally is not admissible in civilian criminal courts or the FISA court. Judges on the secret court press the government about the basis for its requests, asking questions that get into the "nitty-gritty" of "what's going to be done and why," U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth, the FISA court's former presiding judge, said in a 1997 speech to the American Bar Association.

Under the act, the attorney general can authorize a warrantless wiretap for up to 72 hours. But he must give the presiding judge of the FISA court a head's up, and justify the surveillance later. If the attorney general fails, the court has discretion to notify the target of the surveillance.

Steven Shapiro, national legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said he suspects the administration couldn't meet its burden of proof under the law. "My suspicion is they were engaging in a very large fishing expedition," he said. "And it had to do with breadth not urgency."

EDITOR'S NOTE - Toni Locy has covered legal affairs in Washington for 12 years.

Key Websources to Articles:

New Documents Show FBI Targeting Environmental and Animal Rights Groups Activities as ‘Domestic Terrorism’ (12/20/2005)

Key Link: FBI documents released by the ACLU:

Bush vigorously defends domestic spying

Democrats say they didn't back wiretapping

ACLU says FBI misuses terror powers

Analysis: Bush ties surveillance to 9/11 law

Legal Link: AUMF Against Iraq Resolution of 2002

Cheney defends presidential powers

Related Links to Activist Groups:
PETA {People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals}: The animal ...PETA 's animal rights campaigns include ending fur and leather use meat and dairy consumption fishing hunting trapping factory farming circuses bull ...

Greenpeace: Greenpeace exists because this fragile earth deserves a voice. It needs solutions. It needs change. It needs action. Greenpeace is a non-profit organisation, with a presence in 40 countries across Europe, the Americas, Asia and the Pacific.

Catholic Workers

A.C.L.U. {American Civil Liberties Union}: Advocating individual rights by litigating, legislating, and educating the public on a broad array of issues affecting individual freedom.

Documents from the U.S. National Archives & Records Administration

Key U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights Links:

The Declaration of Independence

The Constitution of the United States

The Bill of Rights

Constitutional Amendments 11-27

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