- A broad coalition of groups has filed a lawsuit against the National Security Agency
- Suit asks a federal judge to halt NSA's "unconstitutional program of dragnet electronic surveillance"
- Plaintiffs include church groups, gun owners, human-rights groups and free-speech advocates
- The lawsuit is at least the fourth challenging the government's surveillance program
A broad coalition of groups supporting everything from religion, drugs, and digital rights to guns and the environment sued the National Security Agency today, demanding a federal judge immediately halt what they are calling an "unconstitutional program of dragnet electronic surveillance" stemming from the government's vast collection of Americans' phone-calling data.
The lawsuit (.pdf), lodged in San Francisco federal court, is at least the fourth challenging the government's wholesale phone surveillance program first disclosed by the Guardian newspaper, which last month began publishing documents leaked to the media outlet by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.
Lawmakers at first appeared outraged by the disclosure and held hearings. But that fervor had quickly dissipated, and Congress has seemingly turned a blind eye to the surveillance that all the lawsuits — from San Francisco to the District of Columbia — seek to halt.
"Defendants' collection of telephone communications information includes, but is not limited to, recordings indicating who each customer communicates with, at what time, for how long and with what frequency communications occur. This communications information discloses the expressive and private associational connections among individuals and groups, including Plaintiffs and their members and staff," according to the suit, which is being ligated by the Electronic Frontier Foundation and others.
"This lawsuit challenges an illegal and unconstitutional program of dragnet electronic surveillance, specifically the bulk acquisition, collection, storage, retention, and searching of telephone communications information," the suit said.
The Guardian in June posted a leaked copy of a top secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court opinion requiring Verizon Business to provide the NSA the phone numbers of both parties involved in all calls, the International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI) number for mobile callers, calling card numbers used in the call, and the time and duration of the calls.
The law that has been authorizing the surveillance is the Patriot Act — adopted six weeks after the 2001 terror attacks — and greatly expanded the government's power to intrude into the private lives of Americans.
The suit names one of the most controversial provisions of the Patriot Act — Section 215 — that allows the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to authorize broad warrants for most any type of records, including those held by banks, doctors and phone companies. Lawmakers have repeatedly voted to prevent the act from expiring. The government only needs to show that the information is "relevant" to an authorized investigation. No connection to a terrorist or spy is required.
The suit says the spying as outlined by the Guardian and confirmed by the government breaches the constitutional rights of the plaintiffs. Among other things, it chills their First Amendment speech rights and breaches the Fourth Amendment because the secret court is authorizing the surveillance against Americans without particularized suspicion that they have engaged in any criminal, terrorist activity.
"The Program collects information concerning all calls wholly within the United States, including local telephone calls, as well as all calls between the United States and abroad, regardless of a connection to international terrorism, reasonable suspicion of criminality, or any other form of wrongdoing," according to the suit, signed by Cindy Cohn, the EFF's legal director.
The suit names the National Security Agency; NSA Director Keith Alexander, Attorney General Eric Holder; Federal Bureau of Investigation; FBI Director Robert Mueller; and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and others.
The plaintiffs include: First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles; Bill of Rights Defense Committee; Calguns Foundation; California Association of Federal Firearms Licensees; Council on Islamic Relations; Franklin Armory; Free Press; Free Software Foundation; Greenpeace; Human Rights Watch; Media Alliance; National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws; Open Technology Institute; People for the American Way, Public Knowledge; Students for Sensible Drug Policy; TechFreedom; and Unitarian Universalist Service Committee.
The government has repeatedly maintained that Americans have no constitutional privacy rights connected to their business records with the phone company.
Meantime, the Electronic Privacy Information Center has taken a different legal path and has asked the Supreme Court to stop the program under virtually the same allegations. The American Civil Liberties Union has done the same in a New York federal court. Larry Klayman, the former chairman of Judicial Watch, has lodged a suit challenging the surveillance in a District of Columbia federal court.
The government has yet to officially answer the allegations in court, but is expected to respond later this week in the ACLU challenge.