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DOJ Scraps Fight Over Grab of Census Records

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - The Justice Department has dropped its bid to keep secret a legal analysis of how the Patriot Act justifies law enforcement and intelligence access to census records, watchdog group EFF said Thursday.

The news comes nearly four years after privacy watchdog group Electronic Frontier Foundation sued the Justice Department under the Freedom of Information Act for access to opinions in which the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court found some of the National Security Agency's surveillance unconstitutional.

In the meantime, NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden leaked the first batch of documents to media outlets and shed further light on the NSA's surveillance tactics.

This led the DOJ to declassify and release hundreds of pages of documents related the government's secret interpretation of Section 215 of the Patriot Act - which it uses to justify spying on millions of Americans' phone conversations.

But while U.S. District Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers sided with the feds this past August and ruled that five FISC opinions and orders should be kept under wraps, she said a legal memo drafted by DOJ lawyers outlining the Commerce Department's obligation to disclose census information under the Patriot Act while still adhering to prohibitions in the Census Act had been adopted as "working law" and should be released.

The Justice Department appealed that portion of Rogers' decision this past October. But it reversed course on Thursday, filing a motion to dismiss its appeal - a move that will force the department to release the legal memo, EFF said.

"The public trusts that information disclosed for the census won't wind up in the hands of law enforcement or intelligence agencies," EFF staff attorney Mark Rumold said in a statement. "The public has a right to know what the Office of Legal Counsel's conclusions were on this topic, and we're happy to have vindicated that important right."

Rumold applauded the DOJ's move as "a wise decision," and said he looked forward to "a fully informed, public debate" about the provisions of Section 215 of the Patriot Act.

The Justice Department has not yet provided the opinion to EFF, but the group said it will make the document available on its website after a review.

EFF did not appeal Rogers' decision to keep the five FISC documents a secret.

The case is part of EFF's "Transparency Project" and was filed in 2011, on the 10th anniversary of the Patriot Act's signing.

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