John Ashcroft's First Year as Attorney General

Increased Surveillance of Religious and Political Organizations

In the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Ashcroft has proposed further infringements upon the freedoms of religious and political groups in the name of national security.

In a December interview with ABC News, Ashcroft indicated that the Justice Department might loosen restrictions on monitoring religious groups: "If a religion is hijacked and used as a cover for killing thousands of Americans, we're interested in that."45

Currently, regulations require that the Justice Department show probable cause of criminal activity before conducting surveillance of political and religious organizations. Ashcroft's proposal would relax the probable cause requirement, affecting domestic groups as well as those based in other countries.46

Restrictions on the monitoring of such groups were put into place during the Vietnam era after revelations about the abuses of the Hoover-era programs, including the use of surveillance by the FBI and CIA to disrupt the activities of legitimate civil rights and antiwar organizations. In 1975, a Senate committee concluded that such monitoring was "a sophisticated and vigilante program aimed squarely at preventing the exercise of First Amendment rights of speech and association."47

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