Reform Jewish Leaders Urge Congress to Examine New FBI Surveillance Guidelines
Saperstein and Heller: As leaders of a religious group that was itself once a target of illegitimate FBI surveillance, we understand the chilling effect that government spying can have on lawful political dissent and the privacy rights of individuals.
Contact: Alexis Rice or Michael Weiner 202-387-2800
WASHINGTON, June 5, 2002 - In a letter today to Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Orrin Hatch (R-UT), Chairman and Ranking Member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Representatives F. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) and John Conyers (D-MI), Chairman and Ranking Member of the House Judiciary Committee, Rabbi David Saperstein, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, and Robert M. Heller, Chair of the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism, voiced their concern over the FBI's new domestic surveillance guidelines and urged the committees to hold oversight hearings to examine the implications of the changes, noting that "significant congressional oversight is the best way to ensure that the competing, yet symbiotic, values of freedom and security are balanced appropriately."
The complete statement follows:
Dear Chairman Leahy, Senator Hatch, Chairman Sensenbrenner and Representative Conyers:
On behalf of the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism, the public policy body of North America's largest organized Jewish community, we write to express deep concern about the FBI's new domestic surveillance guidelines and to urge you to hold oversight hearings to examine the implications of the changes.
We recognize that the threat of terrorism demands that our nation recalibrate in various ways the traditional balance between preserving our civil liberties and providing for our national security. Indeed, that process began on September 11. However, we also believe that significant changes in the policies that have governed our law enforcement agencies for three decades need to be considered with care, caution and appropriate public deliberation. The process that led to the newly promulgated guidelines did not meet that standard, and we are particularly concerned that such sweeping changes in law enforcement procedures could be implemented without congressional authorization. Congressional review and consideration are all the more important because, taken with the relaxed surveillance practices instituted by the USA PATRIOT Act, the new guidelines seriously undercut the protections against illegitimate domestic spying that were established in the 1970s as a response to past FBI abuses.
One of the most significant changes allows the FBI to initiate surveillance without even the slimmest evidence of criminal activity, possibly permitting spying based only on political opinions expressed on a website, or even worse, an individual's religion or national origin. The notion that constitutionally protected speech or an ethnic profile could serve as the sole impetus for surveillance of individuals and institutions, absent any threat or suspicion of wrongdoing, threatens to chill the exercise of fundamental rights. Before any such enforcement activity is allowed, there should be thoughtful examination by Congress of the necessity and justification for it, including consideration of less worrisome alternatives that may be no less effective in enhancing security but less susceptible to abuse. Our nation's recent past offers a troublesome lesson about the dangers implicit in the authority the guidelines would grant. We recall only too well that in the 1970s, the Church Committee hearings revealed that the FBI had "undertaken the secret surveillance of citizens on the basis of their political beliefs, even when those beliefs posed no threat of violence or illegal acts on behalf of a hostile foreign power… Groups and individuals have been harassed and disrupted because of their political views and their lifestyles." Congress must ensure this does not happen again.
Under existing regulations, federal law enforcement officials already have broad authority to conduct surveillance by meeting the minimal standard of having "information or an allegation whose responsible handling required some further scrutiny." Likewise, investigation of international terrorist rings such as Al-Qaeda can be conducted under classified, and less restrictive, foreign intelligence regulations that are not constrained by domestic surveillance guidelines. Considering the wide latitude federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies already have, Congress should ask Justice Department and FBI officials serious questions about why the changes announced by the Attorney General are a necessary tool to fight terrorism, especially when the regulations relate to non-terrorist criminal inquiries as well. Indeed, most of the changes involve general criminal investigations and are not focused exclusively on terrorist activity. Further, Congress should clarify exactly how implementation of the guidelines will protect the rights of innocent Americans and will prevent the repetition of illicit FBI spying on political, civic and religious organizations.
As leaders of a religious group that was itself once a target of illegitimate FBI surveillance, we understand the chilling effect that government spying can have on lawful political dissent and the privacy rights of individuals. At the same time, we recognize the extremely complex nature of the terrorist threat and we want our law enforcement officers to have the tools they need to prevent and investigate terrorist acts. That said, serious questions about the relaxed surveillance guidelines remain unanswered, and we believe that significant congressional oversight is the best way to ensure that the competing, yet symbiotic, values of freedom and security are balanced appropriately. Thank you for your consideration.
Rabbi David Saperstein
Director, Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism
Robert M. Heller
Chair, Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism
The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism is the Washington office of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC) , whose over 900 congregations across North America encompass 1.5 million Reform Jews , and the Central Conference of American Rabbis(CCAR) whose membership includes over 1800 Reform rabbis .