Thursday, July 18, 2013

Lawsuit against NSA, FBI and the U.S. government

NSA Photo
By Eric Boehm |

It seems government spying is one of the few things that can unite disparate groups on the left and the right.

Led by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit law firm, more than 20 groups from across the political spectrum filed a lawsuit Tuesday against the National Security Agency, FBI and the U.S. government challenging the constitutionality of widespread collection of telephone data.

The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. It will be months before the case goes anywhere, but here’re five questions you’re probably asking about the complicated legal maneuver.

1. Who is suing the NSA?

Everyone. Well, not quite. But the list of plaintiffs in the lawsuit is pretty long – it includes churches, nonprofits and political organizations.

The amazing thing about the lawsuit is the bipartisanship of it all. One of the plaintiffs is Greenpeace. There are three pro-gun groups on the list. And two groups advocating for drug legalization.

How often do you see environmental groups teaming up with gun rights activists? When it comes to the government surveillance, all politically active groups have reason to fear government surveillance, said Shahid Buttar, executive director of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, one of the plaintiffs in the case.

“I think there is probably nothing that our groups agree on except for this,” Buttar said during a Wednesday interview with “It is offensive to Americans from all walks of life.”

2. Why are they filing a lawsuit?

The plaintiffs argue the NSA and other agencies (they are also suing the FBI, the heads of the NSA and FBI, and the United States as an entity, which brings Attorney General Eric Holder into the mix as well) has violated the First, Fourth, and Fifth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution “as well as statutory prohibitions and limitations on electronic surveillance.”

The groups argue that they have to stand on their own, but they also argue that all members of their staff and any person they have had contact with could be a party to the lawsuit because of the breadth of the NSA’s “dragnet electronic surveillance” collection of phone data.

Aside from privacy rights concerns, the groups bringing the lawsuit say the NSA tracking threatens the right of free association guaranteed by the First Amendment.

“People who hold controversial views — whether it’s about gun ownership policies, drug legalization, or immigration — often must express views as a group in order to act and advocate effectively,” said Cindy Cohn, legal director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. ”But fear of individual exposure when participating in political debates over high-stakes issues can dissuade people from taking part.”

3. So they are upset about the government collecting phone records?

Yes, but that’s not all. The plaintiffs make it clear that the collection of the so-called telephone metadata (information about the location and duration of calls, along with numbers dialed) is unconstitutional in their view. But after the NSA and other security agencies gather the data, they have to sift through it somehow, ostensibly to find patterns of calls that might indicate someone is involved in terrorist activity.

Any searches of that collected data is equally unconstitutional, the plaintiffs argue, because it is “neither relevant to an existing authorized criminal investigation nor to an existing authorized investigation to protect against international terrorism.”

The government maintains that any search of that database is only done with the permission of a court — a June memo from James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, said “surveillance programs like this one … are designed to strike the appropriate balance between national security interests and civil liberties and privacy concerns” — but it’s a court that is top secret and issues warrants that are equally top secret, so it’s hard to tell.

4. What does this have to do with that Edward Snowden guy the media keeps talking about?

Nothing directly, but everything, indirectly. While much of media continues to be fascinated with NSA-leaker Edward Snowden’s international search for asylum beyond the reach of the U.S. government, this is far more serious than a reality show-type coverage the cable networks are giving it.

The lawsuit cuts to the heart of the questionably legal activity exposed by Snowden, a former contractor who worked for the NSA before leaking information about the federal government’s electronic dragnet and going on the run.

As part of their court filing, the plaintiffs included some of the classified documents leaked by Snowden. So even though he is not involved in this case at all, the lawsuit would not exist without him.

5. What do the plaintiffs want out of this?

The plaintiffs are asking a federal judge to impose an immediate injunction to shut down the federal government’s electronic surveillance program, which the plaintiffs say started all the way back in 2001 and was expanded in 2006 and again in 2011.

They also want the judge to rule the program unconstitutional because they say it violates the First Amendment protection of free speech and free association, the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures and the Fifth Amendment protection for privacy rights.

They also want all data collected by the program destroyed.

Buttar said it will be months, or even years before there is a definitive ruling in the case. But now that the government has admitted the existence of the electronic surveillance programs, judges will have to consider the merits of the programs.

“That admission gives us the opportunity to hurdle one of the biggest challenges we’ve faced in previous cases challenging the government’s spying programs,” he said.

Eric Boehm is a national reporter for Contact him at and on Twitter @EricBoehm87


Stand and become part of the Class Action Lawsuit

Flame of Liberty

Sen. Rand Paul discusses Americans' continuous loss of liberty through the lens of Ray Bradbury's dystopian classic "Fahrenheit 451." This was posted in Aug 9,1912 yes Pod a year ago.


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