Skip to main content

NSA snooping triggers lawsuits

By Bill Mears, CNN
updated 9:09 AM EDT, Wed June 12, 2013
After Navy SEAL Michael Strange died in Afghanistan, his parents say, their communications were monitored.
After Navy SEAL Michael Strange died in Afghanistan, his parents say, their communications were monitored.
  • Philadelphia couple, ACLU file lawsuits over surveillance
  • Court complaints involve NSA phone monitoring
  • Legal challenges expected to be uphill fight in federal courts
  • President Barack Obama says surveillance necessary and lawful to fight terror

Washington (CNN) -- Initial legal challenges to the government's sweeping electronic surveillance programs began to emerge with one couple alleging they were singled out for monitoring because they criticized the U.S. military.

A $3 billion class-action complaint by Mary Ann and Charles Strange of Philadelphia was believed to be the first civil case against the Obama administration since last week's blockbuster disclosure in published reports about the super-secret National Security Agency surveillance efforts.

The disclosures in the Guardian newspaper and the Washington Post have outraged civil libertarians, political liberals and some conservatives, and triggered new policy and privacy debates. But legal challenges are expected to be uphill fights in federal court.

The Stranges' suit and another by civil liberties groups this week centered on phone monitoring in which the NSA is said to have received data from a major telecommunications company.

Charges being sought for NSA leaker
Manhunt under way for NSA leaker
Who is Edward Snowden's girlfriend?
Rep. King: NSA leaker put lives at risk

"This dragnet program is surely one of the largest surveillance efforts ever launched by a democratic government against its own citizens," said Jameel Jaffer, said legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union, which joined with the New York Civil Liberties Union in filing suit.

They argue the program, which the White House says is carefully and lawfully applied and a necessary tool in fighting terrorism, violates the First Amendment free speech rights as well as the Fourth Amendment right to privacy.

No sign of NSA leaker as U.S. investigation builds steam

The complaint also charges the initiative exceeds the authority that Congress provided through the Patriot Act, which was a response to the September 2001 al Qaeda attacks against the United States.

The Stranges' son, Navy SEAL Michael Strange, was killed in a 2011 helicopter crash in Afghanistan.

Along with the government watchdog Freedom Watch, the Stranges say their phone records were illegally accessed by domestic spy agencies because they "have been vocal about their criticism of President Obama as commander-in-chief, his administration, and the U.S. military."

A former NSA computer contractor, Edward Snowden, has admitted to leaking details about government surveillance activities, telling a British reporter that Verizon Business Network was ordered by a secret federal court to turn over details of phone calls published from April 25 to July 19.

Intelligence officials later confirmed the program, which analysts say likely covers all U.S. carriers.

That disclosure and a second involving NSA surveillance of e-mails have reignited debate about government collection of personal data in the global hunt for terrorists and criminals.

Civil liberties advocates say the measures are unacceptable intrusions. But supporters say they are legal and have yielded evidence that has helped stop terror plots.

The Stranges have sued Obama, Attorney General Eric Holder, NSA director Keith Alexander, Verizon, government agencies and the judge who signed the secret order on phone monitoring.

House has tough questions about secret surveillance

In the complaint, the couple claims their privacy and free speech rights were compromised by the alleged "criminal acts."

The alleged surveillance "violated plaintiffs' and class members' right of freedom of association by making them and others weary and fearful of contacting other persons and entities via cell phone out of fear of the misuse of government power and retaliation against these persons and entities who challenge the misuse of government power."

The lawsuit offered no specifics of any targeted surveillance. The Stranges based their allegations on "information and belief."

They previously filed a lawsuit against the government over the Afghanistan copter crash that killed 38 people. Strange, 25, and fellow members of his elite SEAL Team VI were killed, along with other American Special Forces, National Guard, and Afghan military troops.

The Stranges and other families of those killed have alleged a government cover-up, questioning the official story of the incident.

The Stranges say that questioning has made them targets for surveillance.

There was no initial response to the surveillance lawsuit from administration officials, including the Justice Department.

Freedom Watch head Larry Klayman said in a statement it was necessary to hold the government accountable.

"We cannot allow a 'Big Brother,' Orwellian government spy on the American people to access their confidential communications to effectively turn 'citizens into its prisoners.'" he said. "That is why this class action lawsuit, which all Verizon users are welcome to join, no matter what their political persuasion, will serve as the vehicle for a second American revolution, one that is carried out peacefully and legally, but also forcefully."

Other lawsuits over the NSA surveillance program could be filed in coming days by other telecommunications customers.

The ACLU, other privacy advocates and individual telecom customers have challenged various National Security Agency programs in the past, but have not been successful in federal courts.

The Supreme Court in February blocked a lawsuit over sweeping electronic eavesdropping on Americans potentially linked to suspected foreign terrorists and spies.

The Philadelphia case is Klayman v. Obama (1:13-cv-851).

Second term mostly drama for Obama

Part of complete coverage on
Data mining & privacy
updated 10:25 AM EDT, Sun June 23, 2013
He's a high-school dropout who worked his way into the most secretive computers in U.S. intelligence as a defense contractor.
updated 8:26 AM EDT, Thu May 29, 2014
Traitor or patriot? Low-level systems analyst or highly trained spy?
updated 3:27 PM EDT, Thu May 29, 2014
What are the takeaways from Snowden's NBC interview? You might be surprised.
updated 7:52 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Months after accepting asylum in Russia, Snowden asked Putin about Moscow's own surveillance practices.
updated 12:43 PM EDT, Wed March 12, 2014
A federal judge has refused the Obama administration's request to extend storage of classified NSA telephone surveillance data beyond the current five-year limit.
updated 8:44 PM EDT, Sun March 9, 2014
From his sanctuary in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, Julian Assange said that everyone in the world will be just as effectively monitored soon -- at least digitally.
updated 8:39 PM EDT, Mon March 10, 2014
In a rare public talk via the Web, fugitive NSA leaker Edward Snowden urged a tech conference audience to help "fix" the U.S. government's surveillance of its citizens.
updated 11:55 PM EDT, Thu August 1, 2013
The White House is "very disappointed" that National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden has been granted temporary asylum in Russia.
updated 8:57 AM EST, Tue December 10, 2013
Spies with surveillance agencies in the U.S. and U.K. infiltrated video games like "World of Warcraft" in a hunt for terrorists "hiding in plain sight" online.
updated 7:39 AM EDT, Fri August 2, 2013
Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden both held jobs that gave them access to some of their country's most secret and sensitive intelligence. They chose to share that material with the world and are now paying for it.
updated 10:35 AM EDT, Thu August 1, 2013
The NSA's controversial intelligence-gathering programs have prevented 54 terrorist attacks around the world, including 13 in the United States.
updated 2:54 PM EDT, Thu August 1, 2013
You've never heard of XKeyscore, but it definitely knows you. The National Security Agency's top-secret program essentially makes available everything you've ever done on the Internet.
updated 9:04 AM EDT, Sun August 18, 2013
You may have never heard of Lavabit and Silent Circle. That's because they offered encrypted (secure) e-mail services, something most Americans have probably never thought about needing.
updated 2:54 PM EDT, Wed July 24, 2013
"Any analyst at any time can target anyone. Any selector, anywhere ... I, sitting at my desk, certainly had the authorities to wiretap anyone."
updated 9:56 AM EDT, Tue July 2, 2013
President Barack Obama responds to outrage by European leaders over revelations of alleged U.S. spying.
updated 3:54 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Browse through a history of high-profile intelligence leaking cases.
updated 10:37 AM EDT, Tue July 2, 2013
Former President George W. Bush talks Snowden, AIDS, Mandela and his legacy.
updated 9:04 AM EDT, Wed June 26, 2013
Edward Snowden took a job with an NSA contractor in order to gather evidence about U.S. surveillance programs.
updated 6:47 AM EDT, Wed June 19, 2013
With reports of NSA snooping, many people have started wondering about their personl internet security.
updated 9:52 AM EDT, Wed August 14, 2013
Click through our gallery to learn about other major leaks and what happened in the aftermath.
updated 4:02 PM EDT, Sun June 9, 2013
What really goes on inside America's most secretive agency? CNN's Chris Lawrence reports.