U.S. opposes release of court rulings on wiretaps

The Bush administration opposed in U.S. court on Friday an effort to peel back a secrecy lid over its domestic counterterrorism wiretapping program, which critics say infringes on privacy and rights.In a filing with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which is itself secret and oversees the program, the U.S. Justice Department said the court should reject a request by the American Civil Liberties Union to disclose its legal rulings at the center of debate over the program.

It said the court had no authority to order such material declassified, the ACLU had no basis for filing its request with the court, and that granting it would jeopardize the surveillance program.

“The public disclosure of the documents the ACLU requests would seriously compromise sensitive sources and methods relating to the collection of intelligence necessary for the Government to conduct counterterrorism activities,” the department said in its filing.

The ACLU said keeping the rulings secret would hamper political debate over the government’s surveillance authority.

“This debate should not take place in a vacuum. The public has a right to know, at least in general terms, what kinds of surveillance the court authorized and what kinds of surveillance it disallowed,” Jameel Jaffer, director of the ACLU’s National Security Project, said in a statement.

Following an order by the court in January, the administration placed under its supervision the program begun earlier by U.S. President George W. Bush of wiretapping conversations between foreign terrorism suspects and Americans.  

The Democrat-led Congress in August passed legislation that authorized the program for six months, but Democrats who say the law went too far have vowed to revise it at the earliest opportunity.

The ACLU filed its request to declassify court findings on the program as part of multiple efforts to contest it. The organization wants released the court’s January order as well as the administration’s original request to the court.

The Senate Judiciary Committee has issued a subpoena to the White House and other agencies for records on the program’s justification, but it has been rebuffed. The committee’s Democratic chairman, Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, has said he considers the administration in contempt, but Congress has taken no action.

The ACLU is due to file its response to the government briefing on September 14.