There are certain checks that aid news and civil rights organizations in ensuring that the Federal government does not operate under a veil of secrecy. One such check is the Freedom of Information Act, which allows for suits against the government to obtain secret documents; but the Feds are increasingly treating FOIA as a joke.
Such is the case regarding a recent FOIA request for information about GPS tracking of citizens submitted to the Justice Department by the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU filed the request to find out under what conditions Justice deems it appropriate to use GPS tracking to spy on unwitting American citizens.
The ACLU explains in a statement why it wants to know more:
The Supreme Court has weighed in on location tracking, but the government still has wide latitude to exploit new technologies and legal uncertainty. In February 2012, the Supreme Court issued a landmark decision in U.S. v. Jones, holding that the Fourth Amendment restricts the circumstances in which the government may attach a GPS device to a car and secretly track its movements. Although the Court’s decision in Jones makes clear that the government’s attachment and use of a GPS tracker on a car constitutes a search under the Fourth Amendment, it does not say whether that search requires a warrant from a judge—a crucial protection because it forces agents to justify their actions to a neutral outsider. Furthermore, the court’s opinion does not address other methods of location tracking, such as cell phone tracking, drones, or license plate readers.
The ACLU alleges that the information that it needs to clear up important questions regarding the situation can be found in two Justice memos that outline the Department’s views regarding what its obligations are under the U.S. v. Jones ruling. Justice complied with the FOIA request — but it did so in such a way that the information provided does little more than taunt the civil liberties group. The Department released the memos, but they are so heavily redacted that none of the information is available.
The ACLU says it will ask for a court order requiring the Justice Department to release the documents, which the group says are “improperly withheld.”
“The purpose [of] FOIA is to make sure the government doesn’t operate under secret law–and right now that’s exactly what these memos are,” the statement concludes.