WASHINGTON – Sidestepping the principle of lawyer-client privacy, the Justice Department is letting investigators monitor phone calls and mail between some terrorist suspects and their defense lawyers.
A rule published Oct. 31 in the Federal Register says the monitoring can take place when Attorney General John Ashcroft concludes there is "reasonable suspicion" that the communications are related to future terrorist acts.
The rule, which took effect the day before it became public, is one of a series of steps by the Bush administration designed to make it easier to capture and prosecute terrorist suspects.
But the move has stunned many in the legal profession, which cherishes the absolute secrecy of conversations with clients.
"This proposal is a terrifying nightmare for innocent people who are under suspicion by the attorney general,'' said Laura W. Murphy, director of the national office of the American Civil Liberties Union.
New anti-terrorism laws give police sweeping new powers to secretly search people's homes and business records and to eavesdrop on telephone and computer conversations. The Social Security Administration's chief criminal investigator also is pressing for the right to disclose personal tax records, Social Security numbers and other data to law enforcement agencies.
The rule requires that any disclosures, except for those "necessary to thwart an imminent act of violence or terrorism," must be approved by a federal judge.