US court clips Patriot Act powers

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A US court struck down significant provisions of the USA Patriot Act yesterday, the law adopted in the wake of the September 11 attacks to give the government powerful new tools for investigating suspected terrorists.

In a case brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, the US district court in New York ruled that government investigators could not force telecommunications companies and internet service providers to turn over their records without allowing for court reviews of the subpoenas.

Further, the court struck down controversial language in the act that had imposed a blanket secrecy requirement on anyone receiving such an order.

Critics of the Patriot Act called it by far the most significant legal victory in a two-year battle to strike down portions of the act they believe are eroding US civil liberties. "This is a landmark victory against the Ashcroft Justice Department's misguided attempt to intrude into the lives of innocent Americans in the name of national security," said Anthony Romero, executive director of the ACLU, referring to John Ashcroft, the attorney-general.

ACLU attorneys said that several other provisions of the act were now vulnerable to similar legal challenges, particularly a section giving investigators broad access to business records in terrorism cases.

The Justice Department had no comment, saying it was reviewing the decision. The ruling will have no immediate impact, because the judge stayed his decision for three months in anticipation of a government appeal to a higher court.

The legal battle concerns provisions in the act that were aimed at speeding investigations of terrorist suspects as a way to thwart future attacks. The Justice Department was pilloried after the September 11 attacks for throwing up legal obstacles that prevented any search of the computer and telephone records of Zacarias Moussaoui, an alleged al-Qaeda operative who was detained several weeks before the attacks after behaving suspiciously at a Minnesota flight school.

But critics say the Patriot Act swept away the constitutional prohibition against unreasonable search and seizure. The New York court agreed, with Judge Victor Marrero writing that "in all but the exceptional case, [the provision] has the effect of authorising coercive searches effectively immune from any judicial process".

The case was brought on behalf of an unnamed internet service company that was served with a National Security Letter - a subpoena that can be issued under the act without a judge's approval in cases thought to involve terrorism or foreign intelligence.

While the Justice Department has not released any data, the court said it appeared that hundreds of NSLs were issued in the two years following the September 11 attacks.

In this case, the unnamed recipient refused and launched a lawsuit, even though the action risked breaching the act's prohibition against his revealing that he had been served with an NSL. The court struck down that provision as well, calling the gag order "broad and open-ended".

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