WASHINGTON – The government agreed to tell the American Civil Liberties Union by Jan. 15 which documents it would release about increased surveillance in the United States under a law passed in response to the terrorist attacks.
In response to a suit brought by the ACLU and other groups, the Justice Department also said it would supply a list of documents that it would keep confidential, citing national security concerns. The ACLU could challenge the decision to withhold any documents.
The agreement was reached Tuesday before U.S. District Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle, who is hearing the case growing out of an Aug. 21 request filed under the Freedom of Information Act.
The civil liberties group wants to know how the government is carrying out the USA PATRIOT Act, passed in response to Sept. 11. The new law gives the government new powers to obtain personal information about U.S. citizens in an attempt to stop future terrorist attacks.
ACLU lawyer Jameel Jaffer asked for a specific date for the Justice Department to provide the information, saying that another federal judge set a deadline for the Energy Department to release documents and e-mails concerning Vice President Dick Cheney's energy task force. "It's reasonable to ask for a fixed date," he said.
Justice Department lawyer Anthony J. Coppolino said the government needed until mid-January because the ACLU request was being reviewed by several agencies. He said the government had produced 163 pages of information, but needed to check with the various agencies, including the Immigration and Naturalization Service, intelligence and the criminal division to see if the information could be released.
Huvelle said the government was working toward meeting the ACLU's request.
"This is a matter of great public interest," Huvelle said. "I am not unimpressed by the efforts of the government to comply. The government is moving heaven and earth to get what you want."
The ACLU asked the Justice Department for the number of times it has asked libraries or bookstores for lists of purchases or for the identities of those who have bought certain books; how many times law enforcement officials have entered people's homes without letting them know until later; how many times they have approved phone traces of people not accused of any crimes; and how many times they have investigated Americans for writing letters to newspapers, attending rallies or other First Amendment-protected activities.