The FBI asked the Justice Department last fall to seek permission from a secret federal court to use the most controversial provision of the USA Patriot Act, four weeks after Attorney General John D. Ashcroft said that part of the law had never been used, according to government documents disclosed this week. A one-paragraph memo — saying the FBI wanted to use the part of the law that allows investigators in terrorism and espionage cases easier access to people’s business and library records — was in a stack of documents the government has released under court order, as debate persists over whether use of the anti-terrorism law violates civil liberties.
The 383 pages of documents, many with names and other information blacked out, are the first results of a Freedom of Information Act request and lawsuit filed against the Justice Department by a coalition of civil rights groups, says the Washington Post. Last month, a federal appeals court judge ordered the agency to release certain documents indicating how the FBI is carrying out the law. The Patriot Act was passed by Congress at the Bush administration’s urging six weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The law strengthens the executive branch’s power to conduct surveillance, share intelligence with criminal prosecutors and charge suspected terrorists with crimes. Critics have been frustrated that the law allows many of its most controversial powers to be carried out in secret.