WASHINGTON The government says it can get around attorney-client confidentiality as it investigates the terrorist attacks by allowing prisons to monitor phone calls and mail of some of those jailed after Sept. 11.
A rule published Oct. 31 in the Federal Register says the monitoring can take place when Attorney General John Ashcroft concludes there is "reasonable suspicion" that the communications are designed to further terrorist acts. The rule went into effect the day before it became public.
"The immediate implementation of this interim rule without public comment is necessary to ensure" that the Justice Department "is able to respond to current intelligence and law enforcement concerns relating to threats to the national security or risks of terrorism or violent crimes," the new rule states.
The American Civil Liberties Union decried the change.
"I think this proposal is a terrifying nightmare for innocent people who are under suspicion by the attorney general," said Laura W. Murphy, director of the ACLU's national office.
Lawrence Barcella, a former federal prosecutor and now a white-collar defense attorney in Washington, called it "beyond troubling."
"The attorney-client relationship is absolutely necessary and constitutionally protected," he said. "That it can be wiped away on a standard as low as reasonable suspicion is a very, very serious intrusion."
Solomon L. Wisenberg, former deputy independent counsel to Whitewater prosecutor Ken Starr, said that "this seems at first glance like a very troubling approach because of its obvious infringement" on attorney-client confidentiality.
Many constitutional rights are curtailed in the prison context, but generally not the guarantee of private communications between attorneys and their clients, Wisenberg said.
The Federal Bureau of Prisons ordinarily sets up two types of phones for inmates one in which calls are monitored and the other where inmates can talk confidentially with their lawyers. The monitored phones are prominently marked so that inmates know in advance that there is eavesdropping.
Phone calls from the designated monitored phones have been used in the past in criminal prosecutions for example, in one of the cases against longtime Bill Clinton friend Webster Hubbell. Phone calls in which Hubbell discussed his taxes were part of the framework for a tax evasion case against the former associate attorney general under President Clinton.
© Copyright 2001 The Associated Press