Attorney General John Ashcroft wants to expand the government’s domestic surveillance powers under the controversial USA Patriot Act to include reading individual e-mails and monitoring a person’s Web surfing activities. The Patriot Act, which is already under legal attack by privacy groups, was passed following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and gives the Justice Department broad new electronic eavesdropping powers.
The new Ashcroft draft proposal, dated Jan. 9 and leaked by the Center for Public Integrity, increases the FBI’s ability to monitor domestic Web surfing activities from 30 days to 90 days and authorizes domestic electronic surveillance after Congress approves the use of military attacks or in the wake of a national emergency. Currently, the electronic surveillance provisions of the Patriot Act only kick in after a declaration of war.
The draft also calls for expanded subpoena powers, including allowing the government to obtain a person’s credit report without a subpoena, and makes the use of encryption in the employment of a crime a felony punishable by a minimum five-year prison sentence.
Ashcroft’s draft, entitled the Domestic Security Enhancement Act of 2003, has not been officially released by the Department of Justice. After the Center for Public Integrity posted the draft, a Justice spokesperson said, “Department staff have not presented any final proposals to either the Attorney General or the White House. It would be premature to speculate on any future decisions, particularly ideas or proposals that are still being discussed at staff levels.”
However, a legislative “control sheet” obtained by the PBS program Now With Bill Moyers indicates that a copy of the draft was sent to Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert and Vice President Dick Cheney on Jan. 10.
Reaction to Ashcroft’s draft from privacy groups was swift and sharp.
“We’re still reeling from the original USA-Patriot Act’s impact of civil liberties and now the government wants more,” said Cindy Cohn, legal director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “Where is the evidence that the law passed less than two years ago is insufficient? When will Congress draw the line and say ‘this much of our civil liberties you’ve taken under the guise of terrorism — you may have no more’?”
On its Web site, the Center for Public Integrity said the draft plan gives the “government broad, sweeping new powers to increase domestic intelligence-gathering, surveillance and law enforcement prerogatives, and simultaneously decrease judicial review and public access to information.”