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NYCLU Tells Bush Administration To Stop Spying On New Yorkers

The NYCLU today decried two programs by which the federal government is spying on American citizens and residents, including New Yorkers, without warrant or suspicion that they have done anything wrong.

The programs include a Department of Defense database of information about people participating in anti-war activity and a National Security Agency of bypassing the court procedure necessary to spy on people living in the United States.

“Since September 11th our government has totally disregarded the checks designed to protect us from government intrusion into our lives,” said Donna Lieberman, NYCLU Executive Director. “Now the Bush Administration is using national security as an excuse for cavalier attempts to spy on Americans. In New York, where anti-war activism and other kinds of political dissent have thrived, this kind of spying on political activity will have a devastating effect on free speech. We need to hold our government accountable.”

The DoD database, which news media obtained last week, showed that the Department of Defense is recording data about American citizens and residents who are engaging in peaceful anti-war or counter-military-recruitment activity. The database contains information about dozens of anti-war meetings or protests in the United States — apparently defying DoD regulations limiting the extent to which the department may collect and retain information on U.S. citizens.

News of the Pentagon database comes as the Bush administration defends its authorization of the National Security Agency to spy without warrants on the telephone calls and emails of people living inside the United States.

News reports last week revealed that the NSA has been engaging in this domestic spying without obtaining warrants through the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Courts, which have been a required prerequisite for domestic spying since the Act became law in 1978. The FISA courts were set up to moderate the government’s alleged need to engage in electronic surveillance of people suspected to be terrorists or spies. The courts been notorious for giving the government huge latitude, rarely — if ever — denying the government’s request for a warrant.

The program’s disclosure last week has prompted bipartisan criticism from Congress and defensiveness from the Bush administration. It breaks even those limits set down by the USA PATRIOT Act, which — even as it made it easier for the government to obtain warrants for wiretaps and searches — specifically banned the government from warrantless searches or wiretaps of Americans except in extraordinary circumstances, as within 15 days of a formal declaration of war. The NYCLU believes that the administration may be seeking to avoid the FISA courts because the intended subjects of its spying do not actually have ties to terrorism but are simply political groups, including peace groups and other groups critical of the government.

The NYCLU continues to work in the courts to limit the government’s ability to engage in surveillance of lawful protest activity. In November the NYCLU and a group of civil rights lawyers asked U.S. District Judge Charles S. Haight to enjoin the NYPD’s policy of taking, and indefinitely retaining, photographs and videotapes of lawful political protest activity in New York City. The motion marks the latest round in the decades-old federal case Handschu v. Special Services Division, which has led to a series of court orders regulating police surveillance of political protest.

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