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Reform Jewish Leader Criticizes Court Ruling on Surveillance

Heller: The changes promulgated by the Department of Justice undermine this purpose, allowing FISA to be used to authorize domestic criminal investigation. The court ruled in favor of these changes, and, in doing so, threatened the Constitutional rights to privacy and against unreasonable search and seizure.


Contact: Alexis Rice or Becca Nagorsky 202-387-2800

Washington, DC, November 19, 2002 - Following yesterday's Federal Appeals Court decision in favor of changes to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act made by the Department of Justice Robert M. Heller, Chair of the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism, released the following statement:

Yesterday's ruling by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of Review - upholding Department of Justice amendations to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act -- expands the authority and jurisdiction of the Act beyond the scope of its original intent. In a time when each step must be carefully measured, this is a step in the wrong direction.

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) established an essential barrier between foreign intelligence surveillance within the U.S. and domestic criminal investigation and its authority was meant to extend to surveillance of foreign powers or agents of foreign powers only. However, the changes promulgated by the Department of Justice undermine this purpose, allowing FISA to be used to authorize domestic criminal investigation. The court ruled in favor of these changes, and, in doing so, threatened the Constitutional rights to privacy and against unreasonable search and seizure.

The court's ruling cited law enforcement's clear and undisputed need for new tactics in countering terrorism. The September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were a powerful demonstration of the horrors of terrorism and stand as a clear reminder of the urgent need to defend our country against this danger. Since the attacks, the U.S. government has sought to enhance security, necessitating a recalibration of the balance between civil liberties and security. However, yesterday's court ruling unnecessarily diminishes the Constitutional right to privacy by failing to properly strike that balance.

FISA was established to eliminate the pervasive abuses of wiretapping and other invasive investigations common to law enforcement in the 1950s, '60s, and '70s. The Union of American Hebrew Congregations has long condemned intrusive and unconstitutional government surveillance of individuals, often conducted on the basis of organizational association or political belief. We are extremely concerned that these new changes to FISA effectively sanction a return to the times when law enforcement officials could easily obtain permission to conduct insidious investigation. Through excessive surveillance, many government agencies implicitly endanger individuals who lawfully use their freedoms of speech, conscience, press, and assembly. The threat creases fear. Fear chills political dissent. And the chilling of dissent threatens the foundation of a democratic society.

Our Jewish tradition is emphatic on the need for privacy. Deuteronomy 24:10-11 teaches: "When you lend your neighbor any manner of loan, you shall not go into his house to fetch your pledge. You shall stand outside, and the person to whom you made the loan shall bring the pledge to you." Rabbi Joseph Bekhor Shor explains that the prohibition on invasive entering is aimed at protecting the dignity of the homeowner. Maimonides takes this a step farther and prohibits even the court from entering a private residence, because the court must be an example to the rest of the community. We express disappointment that in this instance, the court did not act as an example to the rest of the community and instead re-opened the doors to invasive investigations based only on constitutionally protected speech.

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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 .



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