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NSA under fire: Supreme Court to review legality of warrantless wiretapping of Americans

Published time: May 21, 2012 21:12
Edited time: May 22, 2012 01:14
AFP Photo / Paul J. Richards

AFP Photo / Paul J. Richards

Phone calls to Prague? Emails to Ecuador? The United States government can currently sift through any international communication that crosses outside of American territory, but all that might soon change.

The US Supreme Court decided on Monday this week that they will consider a case that challenges the powers for the federal government established in the FISA Amendments Act of 2008, a legislation that allows authorities a wide breadth when getting away with snooping into private conversation in the name of national security.

Although US President Barack Obama campaigned on changing FISA back in 2008, the law on the books right now is carrying over the authoritarian powers installed under the administration of his predecessor, President George W. Bush. As it stands right now, the National Security Agency is allowed unfettered access to listening in on the conversations of Americans as long as they extend over international borders. The American Civil Liberties Union has been trying to change that, however, and might finally be able to take that fight to the highest court in the land.

The ACLU claims that Americans should be protected from government surveillance without warrant or reason; the White House, on the other hand, says the plaintiffs in the case should be able to prove that they are being watched before bringing this case to trial.

The ACLU challenged FISA as soon as it went on the books in July 2008, to which the government quickly dismissed. Nearly four years later, though, the ACLU is adamant in ending the legalized eavesdropping of Americans and the Supreme Court says they will think about hearing their case.

This week’s decision out of Washington, D.C. is but only the beginning in overturning FISA, but the act’s opponents are considering it a victory, albeit a small one, nonetheless.

“The appeals court properly recognized that our clients have a reasonable basis to fear that the government may be monitoring their conversations, even though it has no reason to suspect them of having engaged in any unlawful activities,” Jameel Jaffer, the ACLU’s deputy legal director and lead counsel in the case, says in a press release from the organization. “The constitutionality of the government’s surveillance powers can and should be tested in court. We are hopeful that the Supreme Court will agree.”

Steven R. Shapiro, ACLU legal director , adds in a statement that it is “disappointing” that “the Obama administration’s effort to insulate the broadest surveillance program ever enacted by Congress from meaningful judicial review,” but adds, “Given the importance of this law, the Supreme Court’s decision to grant review is not surprising.”

Previously, attempts by the ACLU to challenge FISA have been halted by the American justice system. Following their initial lawsuit in July 2008, an appellate court decision last year reinstated their challenge, only for the Obama administration to respond by asking for it to be overturned. An appeal was filed with the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals by the plaintiffs, citing Fourth Amendment-guaranteed rights, but now the Supreme Court will consider who has the best case: Obama or the ACLU.

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