The Supreme Court has just agreed to consider whether plaintiffs represented by the ACLU have the right to challenge the constitutionality of a controversial law that authorizes the National Security Agency to conduct dragnet surveillance of Americans’ international emails and phone calls.
At issue is an appeals court ruling that allowed the ACLU’s challenge to the law – called the FISA Amendments Act of 2008 – to move forward. Responding to today’s news, ACLU Deputy Legal Director Jameel Jaffer said:
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. The constitutionality of the government’s surveillance powers can and should be tested in court. We are hopeful that the Supreme Court will agree.
And ACLU Legal Director Steven R. Shapiro said:
Given the importance of this law, the Supreme Court’s decision to grant review is not surprising. What is disappointing is the Obama administration’s effort to insulate the broadest surveillance program ever enacted by Congress from meaningful judicial review.
The ACLU filed the lawsuit in July 2008 on behalf of a broad group of attorneys and human rights, labor, legal and media organizations whose work requires them to engage in sensitive telephone and email communications with people outside the U.S., including colleagues, clients, sources, foreign officials and victims of human rights abuses. The plaintiffs include Amnesty International USA, Human Rights Watch, PEN American Center, The Nation and the Service Employees International Union. The Justice Department claims the plaintiffs should not be able to sue without first showing they have actually been monitored under the program – but it also argues that the government should not be required to disclose if plaintiffs have been monitored.
In March 2011, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit rejected that Catch-22 logic. The government’s request for reconsideration by the full Second Circuit was rejected in September by a 6-6 vote.
Little is known about how the FISA Amendments Act has been used. In response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by the ACLU, the government revealed that every six-month review of the act had identified “compliance incidents,” suggesting either an inability or an unwillingness to properly safeguard Americans’ privacy rights. The government has withheld the details of those “compliance incidents,” however, including statistics relating to abuses of the act.
The act is scheduled to sunset in December. The ACLU is calling for amendments that would limit surveillance to suspected terrorists and criminals, require the government to be more transparent about how the law is being used and place stronger restrictions on the retention and dissemination of information that is collected.