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ACLU Sues Obama Administration Over NSA 'Dragnet' Surveillance Revealed in Historic Leaks

NSA phone surveillance will have 'chilling effect' on ACLU's ability to protect civil liberties

Jacob Chamberlain, staff writer


Following this past week's groundbreaking NSA leaks, the ACLU has now filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the agency's vast phone spying practices—a move that could pose an eventual Supreme Court challenge to the NSA's now exposed "dragnet" surveillance network.

As a Verizon customer, the ACLU—who is known as an active critic and opponent of U.S. government secrecy and overreach—was targeted by the NSA, and has thus had their ability to "engage in legitimate communications with clients, journalists, advocacy partners, and others," undermined, the ACLU argues. 

The ACLU says the unprecedented 'metadata' now known to be collected by the NSA, "gives the government a comprehensive record of our associations and public movements, revealing a wealth of detail about our familial, political, professional, religious and intimate associations," adding that it “is likely to have a chilling effect on whistle-blowers and others who would otherwise contact” the ACLU.

ACLU's Brett Kaufman writes Tuesday:

As an organization that advocates for and litigates to defend the civil liberties of society's most vulnerable, the staff at the ACLU naturally use the phone—a lot—to talk about sensitive and confidential topics with clients, legislators, whistleblowers, and ACLU members. And since the ACLU is a VBNS customer, we were immediately confronted with the harmful impact that such broad surveillance would have on our legal and advocacy work. So we're acting quickly to get into court to challenge the government's abuse of [the Patriot Act's] Section 215.


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The lawsuit maintains that given recent revelations, the NSA has violated the First Amendment rights of free speech and association as well as the right of privacy protected by the Fourth Amendment, and that the NSA has surpassed even the vast authority awarded to them by Congress through the Patriot Act.

"This dragnet program is surely one of the largest surveillance efforts ever launched by a democratic government against its own citizens," said Jameel Jaffer, ACLU deputy legal director. "It is the equivalent of requiring every American to file a daily report with the government of every location they visited, every person they talked to on the phone, the time of each call, and the length of every conversation."

"The program," Jaffer adds, "goes far beyond even the permissive limits set by the Patriot Act and represents a gross infringement of the freedom of association and the right to privacy."

The lawsuit comes a day after the ACLU and Yale Law School's Media Freedom and Information Access Clinic filed a motion with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), requesting that it publish its secret court opinions on the "meaning, scope, and constitutionality of Patriot Act Section 215"—the section of the Patriot Act that authorized the NSA to collect cell data at will (via the FISA court) from phone companies such as Verizon.

"There needs to be a bright line on where intelligence gathering stops," said NYCLU executive director Donna Lieberman, in light of the revelations leaked by former NSA employee turned whistleblower Edward Snowden and published by the Guardian's Glenn Greenwald. "If we don't say this is too far, when is too far?"


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