ACLU to sue NSA over phone spying

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) announced Tuesday it was suing the National Security Agency (NSA) over the government's secret program to collect domestic phone logs.

According to the ACLU, the lawsuit will argue the program violates the group's First Amendment rights of free speech and association, as well as Fourth Amendment safeguards against unreasonable searches and seizures.

"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, in a statement. "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."

ADVERTISEMENT
"The program 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 organization said it had legal standing because it is a customer of Verizon, the phone company named in a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Court document published last week by The Guardian. In the document, the government requires the telephone service provider to provide rolling data about when and where phone calls are placed.

The ACLU claims the data "compromises sensitive information about its work, undermining the organization's ability to engage in legitimate communications with clients, journalists, advocacy partners, and others."

"The crux of the government's justification for the program is the chilling logic that it can collect everyone's data now and ask questions later," said Alex Abdo, a staff attorney for the ACLU's National Security Project, in a statement. "The Constitution does not permit the suspicionless surveillance of every person in the country."

The White House has defended the surveillance programs as appropriately accounting for both national security and privacy interests. President Obama has also insisted that the surveillance is authorized by the Patriot Act and subject to both judicial and congressional oversight.

"As you heard the president say on Friday, he believes that we must strike a balance between our security interests and our desire for privacy. He made clear that you cannot have 100 percent security and 100 percent privacy. And, thus, we need to find that balance," White House press secretary Jay Carney said Tuesday.

But some lawmakers, including Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), the author of the Patriot Act, have argued the programs exceed its legislative mandate.

“The administration claims authority to sift through details of our private lives because the Patriot Act says that it can,” Sensenbrenner wrote in a weekend letter to Attorney General Eric Holder. “I disagree. I authored the Patriot Act, and this is an abuse of that law.”

During the Bush administration, the ACLU challenged the constitutionality of the NSA's warrantless wiretapping program. The Supreme Court eventually ruled that the organization could not sue because the group could not prove it had been harmed by the monitoring.

During the Bush years, telecom companies were also sued for their participation in the warrantless wiretapping program. In 2008, Congress passed an updated version of the FISA bill that granted companies retroactive immunity from lawsuits stemming from the surveillance.