The groups are concerned the Bush administration may be trampling the rights of innocent Americans under the aegis of conducting the war on terrorism. The request asks for government data in 14 categories of agency records, including "sneak and peak" searches of private residences without prior consent, searches of public library and bookstore records and authorizations for wiretaps of phone calls and electronic mail.
"We're not asking for anything that can jeopardize a real investigation," ACLU staff attorney Jameel Jaffer told United Press International. "This is so people can know how much the government is engaging in spying on ordinary Americans."
Under federal law, the government is required to respond to the FOIA request in 20 working days, while requests for expedited processing require a response in 10 calendar days. Jaffer said the groups, which include the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington and the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression in New York, may go to court if the Justice Department fails to respond to the request.
"Ever since the Patriot Act was first proposed, we've been concerned about the potential expansion of government surveillance powers," David L. Sobel, general counsel for EPIC, told UPI. "I think there is certainly the potential (for government abuse), but the question cannot be answered in a vacuum."
Justice Department officials were not immediately available for comment.
The request comes just weeks after House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., and ranking member Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., asked Attorney General John Ashcroft to answer 50 questions about the Patriot Act, which President George W. Bush signed into law shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
"The committee is interested in hearing from you and FBI Director Robert F. Mueller concerning the Department of Justice's use of these new tools and their effectiveness," Sensenbrenner and Conyers wrote in their June 13 letter.
Assistant Attorney General Daniel Bryant, in a response dated July 26, answered only 34 of the questions, and classified six of those answers, meaning only 28 of the answers were made publicly available.
On Tuesday, Sensenbrenner said he would "blow a fuse" if he does not get a satisfactory response to the questions by the week of Labor Day -- Sept. 3-6 -- and warned in an interview earlier this week he may subpoena Ashcroft.
House Judiciary Committee spokesman Jeff Lungren said the Justice Department is working with the committee to get answers to the remaining questions by Labor Day.
(Reported by David Jones in Newark, N.J.)