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With the passage of the USA PATRIOT Act a little more than a month after the attacks, Attorney General Ashcroft demanded and got from Congress new, sweeping powers to obtain sensitive private information about people, eavesdrop on conversations, monitor computer use, and detain suspects without probable cause. As it turned out, those powers were largely not used or needed in the roundup of suspected terrorists in the months that followed.

But in a series of actions closely monitored and publicly condemned by the ACLU’s Washington legislative office, Ashcroft went even further, loosening guidelines that limited FBI spying on religious and political organizations:

He unleashed the bureau to spy on domestic groups and individuals who are lawfully engaged in First Amendment activities, such as Operation Rescue or Greenpeace;

He authorized FBI agents to conduct preliminary investigations for up to a year without headquarters’ approval or reasonable indication of a crime;

He claimed authority to search for leads to terrorist activities in public databases or the Internet; and to purchase commercial data-mining services from companies that collect, organize, and analyze marketing and demographic information; and

He allowed field agents to infiltrate mosques, synagogues or other houses of worship, as well as online chat rooms and message boards, without any evidence a crime might be committed.

The administration also considered, and has not ruled out, such controversial and unproved strategies as biometric devices for high-tech surveillance and tracking of people; encoded postage stamps that could be traced back to the purchaser; and a national identity card — a measure vigorously opposed by such disparate groups as the Eagle Forum and the ACLU because of the potential for identity theft and abuse.

And in what some charge was an attempt to cover up its failures, the administration demanded even more. It proposed creating a vast, new $37.5 billion bureaucracy, to be called the Department of Homeland Security, with jurisdiction over 180,000 employees drawn from 22 federal agencies. Long on secrecy and short on accountability, the proposed cabinet-level department was to be exempt from laws designed to keep government open and to protect whistleblowers.

From Ashcroft’s defiance of the courts to his rewriting of the FBI guidelines without notice to Congress, he has assumed for his department almost limitless authority to spy and detain without interference from other branches of government. Such invasive and unilateral assumptions of power go far beyond the limits of what is needed to investigate suspected terrorists and thwart Congress’s ability to make government accountable.

The ACLU exposes ‘Big Brother’ spy tactics

The ACLU strenuously opposed government spying on people who were not suspected of crimes — with a massive public education

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