In response to Attorney General John Ashcroft’s nationwide campaign to talk up the USA PATRIOT Act and his order for all U.S. Attorneys across the country to do the same with their local media, The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press today released a list of questions that journalists should ask about the Act’s application to journalists and newsrooms.
“The attorney general is touring the country in an effort to convince the public that the PATRIOT Act has been ‘mis-reported’ by the media,” said Reporters Committee Executive Director Lucy A. Dalglish. “But there are portions of the act that could make it more likely that the FBI will execute search warrants on newsrooms where agents believe reporters have been working on stories about terrorism. Newsrooms need to be aware of this possibility.”
The primary section of the Act that should concern journalists is Section 215, which allows prosecutors to obtain “any tangible thing” — not just “business records,” as the Department of Justice keeps saying — from anyone for investigations involving foreign intelligence or international terrorism. (The pre-PATRIOT law applied to specific types of business records of agents of foreign powers.) The person or business receiving the order is forbidden from telling anyone that the FBI sought or obtained the “tangible things.” Since the order authorized by Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act is obtained from the super-secret FISA Court, the order is essentially unappealable.
A Justice department official acknowledged last year in a letter to Congress that such an order could be applied to a newsroom, but the department will not answer questions about whether or how often it has been. Justice also will not acknowledge that the Privacy Protect Act, which protects against newsroom searches or documentary seizures, takes precedence in such situations.
In addition, the PATRIOT Act greatly expands powers to track phone numbers and computerized communications, which can easily draw journalists into investigations and compromise their reporting.
The Reporters Committee’s advisory for journalists can be found at: www.rcfp.org/news/documents/20030820ashcroft.html