Mainers Granted Intervenor Status in Warrantless Spying Case

Affiliate: ACLU of Maine
October 28, 2008 12:00 am

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PORTLAND – A California court has granted the motion of the Maine Civil Liberties Union Foundation to intervene in a case involving National Security Agency wiretapping of potentially millions of Americans. Under the new ruling, James D. Cowie and twenty-one other Mainers have been given formal legal status in a consolidated case against the telephone companies for their role in the NSA warrantless surveillance program.

“We’re pleased that the court finally ruled on our motion to allow Maine citizens to intervene in this case,” said John Paterson, MCLU cooperating attorney with Bernstein Shur who is counsel on a case involving warrantless surveillance of Mainers and a member of the MCLU Board of Directors. “We now have the opportunity to advocate for Mainers’ rights before the court.”

The federal government has moved for dismissal of a series of related lawsuits in which individual citizens have sued the telecommunications companies. The government argues that legislation passed by Congress over the summer granted the telecommunications companies immunity for participation in the NSA surveillance program. The federal government has not yet moved to seek dismissal of the Maine case, which originated with the Maine Public Utilities Commission. Judge Vaughn Walker of the United States District Court for the Northern District of California is presiding over all of the cases.

“Congress can’t just overturn the Fourth Amendment freedom from unreasonable search and seizure with bad legislation,” said MCLU Executive Director Shenna Bellows. “We hope the judge will insist that the case move forward. Mainers deserve to know if we were spied upon illegally.”

Maine Senators Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe voted in favor of legislation to broaden the NSA’s powers to spy on Americans without a warrant. Both Presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain also voted for the surveillance legislation. Maine Congressmen Tom Allen and Mike Michaud voted against the spy program. Two NSA whistleblowers directly involved in the warrantless surveillance program recently revealed to ABC News that the NSA has been monitoring purely private conversations between military personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan and their families back home, even going so far as to record and circulate conversations.

“It is more important than ever that someone watch the watchers,” said MCLU Legal Director Zachary Heiden. “The NSA should not be spying on private conversations between those serving overseas and their families here at home.”

Advocates on both sides do not see an end to the legal appeals process anytime soon. Regardless of the outcome of the court cases seeking to stop the NSA surveillance program, it is likely that civil liberties advocates will bring forward new proposals to curb government spying in the next Congress under a new Administration.

The Maine court case arose out of a 2006 Public Utilities Commission complaint, which was supported by the MCLU, the Maine Public Advocate, and almost 400 Mainers. That complaint, brought by Doug Cowie and twenty-one other Mainers, became the model for several other inquiries across the nation aimed at discovering the extent of the NSA’s warrantless surveillance program. The Department of Justice responded to the complaint by suing the Maine Public Utilities Commissioners and Verizon. The object of the DOJ lawsuit is to prevent the PUC from asking Verizon questions about the program and pre-empt any further investigations into whether Verizon broke the law. The case, United States v. Adams et al, was later consolidated with similar lawsuits against the DOJ and transferred to California.

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