Bob Egelko, Chronicle Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 3, 2008
(12-02) 14:13 PST SAN FRANCISCO -- The government doesn't have to disclose its policies for questioning travelers to the United States about their religious and political views, a federal judge has ruled in dismissing a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit by two San Francisco legal groups.
The Asian Law Caucus and the Electronic Frontier Foundation filed the case in February, saying more than 20 people, mostly South Asian and Muslim, had complained of being interrogated repeatedly at U.S. airports on such subjects as their views on American foreign policy, whether they hated the government and which mosques they had visited abroad.
The suit also sought information on customs agents' searches of travelers entering the country. In response, the Department of Homeland Security provided records this summer showing that the Bush administration has authorized customs agents to read and copy documents without requiring evidence that a traveler has done anything wrong, the legal groups said.
The plaintiff organizations said the government had not responded to their request for guidelines or limits on agents' interrogations of travelers about religion and politics. The nonresponse, they said, was evidence that no such limits exist.
They renewed their request that Homeland Security reveal which topics customs agents are allowed to bring up with travelers, saying the information might show that the government was systematically interfering with free speech.
But U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken, in a Nov. 24 ruling in San Francisco, said the government is not required to disclose records that could help people coming to the country for illegal purposes.
Wilken said the department had given her documents for private review that described the subjects about which customs agents could question travelers. She said she had concluded that releasing the information could help people break the law.
On another issue in the suit, Wilken said Homeland Security isn't required to identify the databases that customs agents use in assembling watch lists of hundreds of thousands of names of people who are supposed to be stopped at borders and airports.
She rejected the legal groups' argument that the information should be made public because the government's use of watch lists is common knowledge. The public knows that the lists exists, Wilken said, but lacks information about the investigative techniques' that the government uses and is entitled to keep secret.
Shirin Sinnar, an Asian Law Caucus attorney, said the legal organizations hadn't decided whether to pursue the case further.
"Some serious First Amendment issues have been raised by reports we're getting from travelers," she said. "I believe questioning people on religious practices and political concerns has a chilling effect on people's willingness to engage in lawful activities."
E-mail Bob Egelko at firstname.lastname@example.org.