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Justice Rules on Secret Court Gets Thumbs Down From Rights Groups

A secret appeals court should turn aside the Bush administration's effort to expand surveillance powers in the war on terror, civil liberties groups said Friday.

In court papers, the groups said expansion would jeopardize the rights to privacy and to engage in lawful public dissent and the warrant, notice and judicial review rights guaranteed by the Constitution's Fourth and Fifth Amendments.

"The government should not be permitted to turn the quest for foreign intelligence into a 'pro forma justification for any degree of intrusion into zones of privacy,"' the court papers, stated quoting a 1973 case on Fourth Amendment rights.

The U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which has not publicly disclosed any of its rulings in nearly two decades, rejected in May some of the Justice Department guidelines for FBI terrorism searches and wiretaps as "not reasonably designed" to safeguard the privacy of Americans.

The Justice Department quickly amended its guidelines and won the court's approval. Meanwhile, Bush administration officials are appealing the restrictions, arguing that the limits inhibit the sharing of information between terrorism investigators and criminal detectives.

In their court filing, the civil liberties groups said they do not dispute that the government should be able to prosecute spies and terrorists.

But "the government simply misses the constitutional point" when it argues that the need to prosecute spies and terrorists justifies using the surveillance even for investigations that are purely criminal, the groups said in their court papers.

The Justice Department says the special court has incorrectly interpreted the Patriot Act, and the effect of that incorrect interpretation is to limit the kind of coordination that the Justice Department regards as vital.

The American Civil Liberties Union's technology and liberty program filed the brief, together with the Center for Democracy and Technology, the Center for National Security Studies, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Open Society Institute.