ACLU: Government seeks document marked `secret'

Associated Press Writer
December 13, 2006, 4:53 PM EST

NEW YORK -- The government is demanding that the American Civil Liberties Union turn over a classified document that the civil rights group said Wednesday would be embarrassing to the government and pertains to the war against terrorism.

The ACLU filed papers under seal in U.S. District Court this week seeking a judicial order letting it keep the 3 1/2-page document, issued in December 2005, which it said "provides a set of general policy guidelines on a matter of longstanding concern to the ACLU."

In the court papers, unsealed Wednesday, the ACLU said release of the document might be "mildly embarrassing" to the government but could not threaten national security and did not concern troop movements, communications methods, intelligence sources or the like.

The ACLU said the designation of the generally unremarkable document as classified "appears to be a striking, yet typical, example of overclassification."

The civil rights group said that it received a grand jury subpoena from the U.S. attorney's office in Manhattan on Nov. 20, nearly a month after the ACLU received the document unsolicited and soon after it refused to comply with a prosecutor's demands to turn it over.

Although it did not reveal the subject matter of the document, the ACLU noted that its issues of longstanding concern include the government's execution of its "war on terror" and its attempts to get documents related to government policies and practices regarding torture and the government's compliance with the Geneva Conventions.

It said it also has pressed the government to renounce torture and other forms of cruel, unusual and degrading treatment and hold accountable senior officials who authorized or condoned such activities.

ACLU Executive Director Anthony D. Romero said it was the "first time in our 86-year history we've been asked to make a document disappear from our files."

Romero said the subpoena served no legitimate investigative purpose and trampled on fundamental First Amendment rights.

"The government's attempt to suppress information using the grand jury process is truly chilling and is unprecedented in law and in the ACLU's history," Romero said. "We recognize this maneuver for what it is: a patent attempt to intimidate and impede the work of human rights advocates like the ACLU who seek to expose government wrongdoing."

The U.S. attorney's office had no immediate comment, spokeswoman Yusill Scribner said.

ACLU Legal Director Steven R. Shapiro said the most significant thing about the case was not the content of the document "but the government's unprecedented effort to suppress it."

The ACLU said the subpoena refers to the Espionage Act, but the civil rights group has been told that it is not a target of the investigation.

In court documents, the ACLU said its lawyers could not find a single reported judicial ruling that even mentions, much less enforces, a subpoena like the one it received.

"The grand jury cannot be used, as it is being used here, for the purpose of suppressing information," the ACLU said.