msnbc.com news services
updated 7/29/2005 11:06:16 PM ET 2005-07-30T03:06:16

A federal judge has ruled that some provisions of the U.S. Patriot Act dealing with foreign terrorist organizations remain too vague to be understood by a person of average intelligence and are therefore unconstitutional.

U.S. District Judge Audrey Collins found that Congress failed to remedy all the problems she defined in a 2004 ruling that struck down key provisions of the act. Her decision was handed down Thursday and released Friday.

“Even as amended, the statute fails to identify the prohibited conduct in a manner that persons of ordinary intelligence can reasonably understand,” the ruling said.

Collins issued an injunction against enforcement of the sections she found vague but specified that her ruling applies only to the named plaintiffs and does not constitute a nationwide injunction.

“I’m pleased that the court has recognized that people have a right to support lawful, nonviolent activities of groups the secretary of state has put on a blacklist,” said David Cole, the attorney and Georgetown University law professor who argued the case on behalf of the Center for Constitutional Rights and the Humanitarian Law Project.

Justice Department spokeswoman Tasia Scolinos said the department was pleased that the judge ruled in favor of the government in four out of five claims.

“The judge’s ruling affects only one small aspect of the Patriot Act, and it does not change the facts surrounding the act,” Scolinos said. “There has not been one verified civil liberties complaint against the act since its inception, and it has successfully broken down walls between the intelligence and the law enforcement community.”

The Center for Constitutional Rights had sought to clear the way for U.S. groups and individuals to assist political organizations in Turkey and Sri Lanka.

Two cases in spotlight
The case centered on two groups, the Liberation Tigers, which seeks a separate homeland for the Tamil people in Sri Lanka, and Partiya Karkeran Kurdistan, a political organization representing the interests of the Kurds in Turkey.

Both groups have been designated by the United States as foreign terrorist organizations.

However, the plaintiffs argued that there was a desperately increased need for aid following the tsunami disaster that devastated Sri Lanka last December. Without a clear definition of what aid is permissible, they said that those who provide assistance could be subject to 15-year prison terms.

The judge’s ruling addressed the prohibition on providing material support or resources, including “training,” “expert advice or assistance,” “personnel” and “service” to designated foreign terrorist organizations.

The judge upheld the government position on a challenge to the ban on providing “personnel” to the named groups but found the other terms too vague.

“The court finds that the terms ‘training,’ ‘expert advice or assistance’ in the form of ‘specialized knowledge’ and ‘service’ are impermissibly vague under the Fifth Amendment,” the judge concluded at the end of her 42-page decision.

She enjoined the government from enforcing those provisions as they apply to the groups named in the lawsuit.

Reauthorization bills must be reconciled
The House passed its version of the legislation reauthorizing the Patriot Act earlier this month. Differences between the two must be reconciled before a final measure can be sent to Bush to sign into law.

Seeking to tighten provisions criticized by civil liberties groups, the Senate bill would require the federal government to report how it uses its authority to view library and medical records, one of the most controversial powers granted by the law.

“Like all compromises, it includes provisions that are not supported by everyone in this body,” said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat.

“However, Democratic and Republican members of the Judiciary Committee came together in a spirit of cooperation and compromise to agree on this bill, and I strongly support it,” Reid said.

The Senate bill, passed without opposition, would renew for four years law enforcement’s ability to go to a secret court for permission to seize suspects’ records from libraries and bookstores.

The House bill has a 10-year sunset for this provision.

House bill on library records under veto threat
Separate legislation, passed in June in the House, would end the government’s easy access to library and bookstore records by making law enforcement revert to traditional search warrants.

That measure, attached to a fiscal 2006 spending bill, has drawn a veto threat from the White House.

Similarly, the Senate has a four-year extension for allowing roving wiretaps, which let the government eavesdrop on suspects as they switch from phone to phone. The House bill has a 10-year extension.

The legislation advanced in Congress shortly after the July 7 suicide bombings of London’s subway and a bus that killed 56 people and injured hundreds. That was followed by a July 21 failed bombing attempt on London’s transportation network.

Still to be considered by the full Senate is separate legislation by its Intelligence Committee that would give the government even broader powers to get records without a judge’s permission. Those provisions have drawn heavy opposition. 

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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