The Supreme Court will consider whether a collection of plaintiffs represented by the ACLU have the right to challenge the constitutionality of a controversial law that allows the National Security Agency to conduct dragnet-style surveillance of Americans’ international email and phone calls.
The ACLU filed the challenge in 2008 on behalf of a broad group of attorneys and human rights, labor, media and legal organizations whose work requires them to engage in sensitive communications with individuals overseas, including colleagues, clients, sources, foreign officials and victims of human rights abuses. The plaintiffs, include The Nation, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch among others.
The ACLU challenged the FISA Amendments Act of 2008, but the government argued the plaintiffs could not pursue the claims without first showing they had been the victims of actual surveillance under the program. An appeals court disagreed, finding the plaintiffs have a reasonable basis to fear that the government may be monitoring their conversations, even if it has no reason to suspect them of having engaged in anything illegal.
ACLU Legal Director Steven R. Shaprio responded to the news of Supreme Court review, noting the importance of the future decision. “Given the importance of this law, the Supreme Courtís decision to grant review is not surprising. What is disappointing is the Obama administrationís effort to insulate the broadest surveillance program ever enacted by Congress from meaningful judicial review.”
Not much is known about how the FISA Amendments Act has been used other than the government has acknowledged several “compliance incidents” where privacy safeguards for Americans had been breached.
The act is scheduled to sunset in December. The ACLU and other civil rights groups are calling for changes to the law that would limit surveillance to suspected terrorists and criminals, require the government be more transparent about how the law is used and place stronger restrictions on the retention and dissemination of information collected. In the meantime though the Roberts Court will get the opportunity to weigh in and, given its mixed record on issues of executive authority, police power and individual privacy rights this is a case we’ll keep a close eye on.
Photo from Jon Gossier via flickr.