ACLU considers revisiting lawsuit alleging spying on innocent citizens
Following the (actually-not-all-that-surprising) bombshell that the National Security Agency has been eavesdropping on calls between innocent US citizens, activists are considering re-opening a lawsuit alleging the government’s infringement upon constitutional rights.
An appeals court last year NSA revelations to have lasting implications brought by the American Civil Liberties Union against the NSA, arguing the plaintiffs the ACLU represented could not prove they had been targets of warrantless surveillance the NSA had engaged in. Now that ABC News has revealed evidence of NSA spooks listening to innocent Americans’ private phone calls, the civil liberties group may ask the court to reconsider.
“Everything is being discussed right now,” ACLU attorney Jameel Jaffer told RAW STORY this week.
Jaffer, who directs the ACLU’s National Security Project, said ABC’s report, based on a forthcoming book by NSA expert James Bamford, undercuts the Bush administration’s arguments that its so-called Terrorist Surveillance Program was narrowly targeted and did not intercept innocent communications. He said the revelations that NSA operatives listened to members groups of the International Committee of the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders bolster the ACLU’s legal challenges to the surveillance program on behalf of other aid organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, whose members also believe they were spied on.
“The response we got from the government (to the lawsuits) was, ‘You’re crazy, these surveillance programs were directed at terrorists,'” Jaffer said. “But now we see they target those kinds of organizations are the kinds of organizations whose communications are being overheard.”
The ACLU filed a lawsuit in July on behalf of international aid organizations, journalists and lawyers seeking to scuttle a law updating the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which Bush flouted to authorize his warrantless surveillance programs.
Fears of an ‘Abu Ghraib’ defense
ABC’s Brain Ross spoke to two military whistle blowers who worked at an NSA listening facility at Fort Gordon, Georgia. Ross reported that “hundreds of US citizens overseas have been eavesdropped on as they called friends and family back home.” The whistle blowers shared stories of transcribing and archiving completely innocent conversations, while they and their colleagues would pass around recordings of phone sex and other intimate conversations like they were intra-office e-mail forwards.
Jaffer said he fears the Bush administration will avoid accountability by blaming any surveillance abuses on the military personnel inside the monitoring center without scrutinizing those higher up the chain of command.
“They will use an Abu Ghraib defense,” he said, referring to the Iraqi prison camp where abuses by US soldiers were documented. “They will blame low-level actors for policy decisions that were made at the top”
Disclosures follow months of surveillance law wrangling
After years of wrangling, Congress gave President Bush the expanded authority he wanted to conduct international surveillance. Thursday’s report suggests lawmakers may have passed the FISA Amendments Act without fully appreciating how the surveillance they were authorizing was being used.
“The likelihood is that these kinds of problems have only become more pervasive and more severe,” Jaffer said.
Key lawmakers say they had no idea that such abuses were taking place. Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV), the Intelligence Committee chairman who was widely criticized by civil libertarians for supporting the president’s FISA proposal, released a statement Thursday calling the new allegations “extremely disturbing” and promising an investigation.
“The Senate Intelligence Committee is examining this now and we have requested all relevant information from the Bush Administration. Any time there is an allegation regarding abuse of the privacy and civil liberties of Americans it is a very serious matter,” he said. “The Congress has enacted tough laws � including the FISA reform bill passed this year – and there are strict procedures in place governing intelligence surveillance when it involves U.S. persons. The Committee will take whatever action is necessary to ensure those rules are followed and any violations are addressed.”
Intelligence Committee members received access to internal Bush administration documents last fall concerning the warrantless wiretapping program. The classified documents were believed to include orders signed by Bush every 45 days reauthorizing the warrantless surveillance program along with Justice Department memos outlining its legal justifications.
It’s unknown if the Intelligence Committee ever sought or received copies of progress reports or other information from the NSA itself on how the program was being used. A committee spokeswoman did not return a call seeking comment Friday.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid voted against the FISA update because of a controversial provision it contained granting immunity to telecommunications companies that facilitated the warrantless surveillance. Reid promised to revisit the FISA statutes when Congress considers renewing the Patriot Act next year.
Constitutional lawyer Glenn Greenwald blames Rockefeller and others in Congress for not investigating the Bush administration further before expanding its authority under FISA.
The conservative Heritage Foundation takes a nothing-to-see-here-folks approach to the disclosures, arguing that no laws were broken because at least some of the conversations were made on satellite phones, which it says are not covered by FISA.
Furthermore, the government apparently believes it has unfettered right to listen in on its employees, according to ABC. An intelligence official told the network that “all employees of the US government” should expect eavesdropping as a matter of national security protection.
Source: The Raw Story