Obama Administration Asks Supreme Court to Dismiss ACLU Challenge to Warrantless Wiretapping Law

February 17, 2012 5:26 pm

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ACLU Argues Dragnet Surveillance of Americans Is Unconstitutional

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NEW YORK – The government today asked the Supreme Court to overturn an appeals court ruling that allowed the American Civil Liberties Union to challenge the constitutionality of a law that gives the government unprecedented authority to monitor international emails and phone calls by Americans.

At issue is an appeals court ruling that allowed the ACLU’s case to move forward. It rebuffed Obama administration arguments that the case should be dismissed because the ACLU’s clients cannot prove their communications will be collected under the law, known as the FISA Amendments Act. The ACLU said it was disappointed by today’s request.

“The appeals court correctly ruled that our plaintiffs have standing to challenge this sweeping surveillance law, and it’s disappointing that the administration is challenging that ruling,” said Jameel Jaffer, ACLU deputy legal director. “It’s crucial that the government’s surveillance activities be subject to constitutional limits, but the administration’s argument would effectively insulate the most intrusive surveillance programs from judicial review. The Supreme Court should leave the appeals court’s ruling in place and allow our constitutional challenge to proceed.”

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. such as colleagues, clients, sources, foreign officials and victims of human rights abuses. The coalition includes Amnesty International USA, Human Rights Watch, The Nation, the Service Employees International Union and journalists Chris Hedges and Naomi Klein. The Justice Department claims that the plaintiffs should not be able to sue without first showing that they have, in fact, been monitored under the program – information that the government refuses to provide.

In March 2011, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled that the plaintiffs do, in fact, have the right to challenge the constitutionality of the law. In September, the full Second Circuit rejected the government’s request for reconsideration of that ruling.

“The FISA Amendments Act is the most sweeping surveillance statute ever enacted by Congress. It allows dragnet surveillance of Americans’ international communications with none of the safeguards that the Constitution requires. This kind of law should not be shielded from judicial scrutiny,” said Alex Abdo, staff attorney with the ACLU’s National Security Project.

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 2012. 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.

Attorneys on the lawsuit challenging the FISA Amendments Act are Jaffer and Abdo of the ACLU; Christopher Dunn and Melissa Goodman of the New York Civil Liberties Union; and Charles S. Sims, Theodore K. Cheng and Matthew J. Morris of Proskauer Rose LLP.

More information on the ACLU’s lawsuit challenging the law:

More information on the ACLU’s FOIA lawsuit:

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