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ACLU sues Obama administration over NSA surveillance

Published time: June 11, 2013 21:54
Edited time: June 25, 2013 12:26
AFP Photo / Karen Bleier

AFP Photo / Karen Bleier

The American Civil Liberties Union sued the US Government, after it became known that the National Security Agency has routinely received phone call data pertaining to millions of customers subscribed to the telecom company Verizon.

The Guardian newspaper revealed a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court document compelling Verizon to provide the NSA with metadata on the phone calls of subscribers on a daily basis. Journalist Glenn Greenwald has since published more details about the NSA’s doings, and last week a 29-year-old former CIA contractor named Edward Snowden took credit for the leaks. He has since gone into hiding and is the target of a Department of Justice investigation.

Critics are calling the NSA’s practice an example of blanketing, dragnet surveillance that has the potential to freeze First and Fourth Amendment rights, while others are coming forward with their own lawsuits.

Larry Klayman, the founder of Judicial Watch and Freedom Watch, filed a lawsuit together with Charles and Mary Ann Strange, the parents of Navy SEAL Michael Strange, who was killed in Afghanistan in 2011.

According to the complaint, the plaintiffs allege they were denied “reasonable expectation of privacy, free speech and association, right to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures, and due process rights.” The complaint goes on to say their phone records were accessed in particular because of their “criticism of the Obama administration.”

Sen. Rand Paul and Rep. Justin Amash have indicated that they want class action lawsuits against the NSA to reach the Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, 85 groups — including Reddit, the Mozilla Foundation, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation — formed Stop Watching Us, which started a petition against PRISM, the NSA’s online data-mining program. The petition reads: “The revelations about the National Security Agency’s surveillance apparatus, if true, represent a stunning abuse of our basic rights. We demand the US Congress reveal the full extent of the NSA’s spying programs.”

Now the ACLU wants the program stopped altogether, and is taking their fight to federal court.

The battle begins


ACLU, the non-profit organization, asked the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York to examine the NSA/Verizon scandal leaked by Snowden, condemning the revelations as illegal, unconstitutional and alarming.

“Collecting those details — ‘metadata’ that reveals who people talk to, for how long, how often and possibly from where — allows the government to paint an alarmingly detailed picture of Americans' private lives,” ACLU legal fellow Brett Kaufman wrote in a blog post that accompanied a copy of the complaint.

Kauffman said that the ACLU should have good standing to challenge the collection of phone data because the group is a customer of Verizon Business Network Services, suggesting the government has been able to regularly see who staffers communicate with other information that could be used to target persons without demonstrating probable cause.

“As an organization that advocates for and litigates to defend the civil liberties of society's most vulnerable, the staff at the ACLU naturally use the phone — a lot — to talk about sensitive and confidential topics with clients, legislators, whistleblowers and ACLU members,” Kauffman wrote. “And since the ACLU is a VBNS customer, we were immediately confronted with the harmful impact that such broad surveillance would have on our legal and advocacy work.”

Kaufmann went on to call the collection of photo data demonstrates the government’s abuse of Section 215, a provision in the post-9/11 Patriot Act that allows the Justice Department to collect intelligence involving US citizens via a modification to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The ACLU wants the court to acknowledge that the mass call tracking program operated by the NSA violates Section 215 and have the call records purged.

“The ACLU's complaint filed today explains that the dragnet surveillance the government is carrying out under Section 215 infringes upon the ACLU's First Amendment rights, including the twin liberties of free expression and free association. The nature of the ACLU's work — in areas like access to reproductive services, racial discrimination, the rights of immigrants, national security and more — means that many of the people who call the ACLU wish to keep their contact with the organization confidential. Yet if the government is collecting a vast trove of ACLU phone records—and it has reportedly been doing so for as long as seven years — many people may reasonably think twice before communicating with us.”

In the actual 11-page document, ACLU attorneys are much clearer with how they believe the mass tracking of phone records hinders them from doing their job in full.

“In ongoing litigation, plaintiffs often communicate with potential witnesses, informants or sources who regard the fact of their association or affiliation with plaintiffs as confidential. Particularly in their work relating to national security, access to reproductive services, racial discrimination, the rights of immigrants and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, plaintiffs’ work often depends on their ability to keep even the fact of their discussions with certain individuals confidential. Similarly, plaintiffs often communicate with government and industry whistleblowers, lobbyists, journalists and possible advocacy partners who consider the confidentiality of their associations with plaintiffs essential to their work.”

“Often, the mere fact that plaintiffs have communicated with these individuals is sensitive or privileged,” the complaint alleges.

President Barack Obama has defended the program since the leaks emerged last week, both personally and through the White House press secretary. The lawsuit lists FBI Director Robert Mueller, Attorney General Eric Holder, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, NSA Director Keith Alexander and the Central Intelligence Agency’s Chuck Hagel as defendants.

Hours before the lawsuit came out on Tuesday, White House press secretary Jay Carney spoke highly of the NSA’s programs.

“As you heard the president say on Friday, he believes that we must strike a balance between our security interests and our desire for privacy,” said Carney. “He made clear that you cannot have 100 percent security and 100 percent privacy, and thus we need to find that balance.”

“He believes, as commander-in-chief, that the oversight structures that are in place to ensure that there is the proper review of the types of programs we have in place, authorized by Congress through the PATRIOT Act and FISA, do strike that balance,” he said.