Previously censored material was released for the first time Tuesday in a lawsuit in which a federal judge last year struck down a provision of the Patriot Act. The material the government wanted withheld included the phrase "national security" and this sentence from a statement by an FBI agent: "I am a Special Agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation."
The ACLU and an unnamed Internet service provider challenged the FBI's use of expanded powers under the Patriot Act to compel Internet access firms to turn over information about their customers or subscribers. The companies were then barred from ever disclosing the searches took place.
U.S. District Judge Victor Marrero of New York ruled in September that the law violates the Fourth Amendment ban on unreasonable searches and the secrecy clause violates the First Amendment because it is a prior restraint on speech. The administration is appealing the decision.
The lawsuit itself was made public only after the ACLU reached agreement with the Justice Department on a heavily edited version.
The Justice Department insisted that the legal gag order encompass any suggestion that a firm had been served with a "national security letter," the term for the documents the FBI would issue to obtain the customer information. The ACLU protested that such information was obvious because there would otherwise be no lawsuit.
"At every turn, the government has sought to censor even the most innocuous, non-sensitive information about this case," said ACLU associate legal director Ann Beeson. "The use of 'national security' to suppress non-sensitive information deprives the public of basic information about government activity."
Justice Department spokesman Kevin Madden declined to discuss specific material that had been censored. "Redactions in classified documents are made with careful consideration of national security concerns and after input from law enforcement agencies," Madden said.
The edited documents were letters from the Justice Department and the ACLU, legal filings, a statement from ACLU executive director Anthony Romero and the FBI agent's declaration.
The agent described his delivery of the letter and conversations with its recipient and an ACLU lawyer. The statement had been blacked out in its entirety, except for the agent's declaration that he was telling the truth.
The name of the Internet firm remains secret.
By Mark Sherman