A federal judge will hear arguments in San Francisco this morning on the government’s bid for dismissal of a lawsuit that accuses it of illegal “dragnet” surveillance of Americans’ telephone and e-mail records.
The lawsuit was filed against the National Security Agency and several other agencies and officials in September by five Californians led by Carolyn Jewel of Petaluma.
It alleges that the NSA, working with telecommunications companies, is violating the Constitution and federal wiretapping laws by intercepting the communications records of “millions of ordinary Americans” in a surveillance program authorized by former President George W. Bush following the terrorist attacks of 2001.
The Justice Department is now asking Chief U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker to dismiss the lawsuit on the ground that allowing it to proceed would risk revealing intelligence secrets.
Government lawyers argued in a court filing that such disclosures could “cause exceptionally grave harm to national security.”
The plaintiffs’ lawyers, from the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation contend that recent court decisions show that the government can’t claim blanket immunity from being sued for alleged warrantless surveillance.
They also say that some information about the surveillance program is publicly known and is not a secret.
Most recently, they claim, a report released on July 10 by the inspectors general of five U.S. intelligence agencies revealed a substantial amount of unclassified information on the Bush administration’s surveillance program.
The attorneys argued in a filing submitted to Walker on Monday that the report “demonstrates that broad aspects of the program can be addressed in the open without undermining the national security of the United States.”
Four of the same plaintiffs filed a separate lawsuit against AT&T Corp. in federal court in San Francisco in 2006 for allegedly aiding the NSA in warrantless wiretapping.
But last year, Congress passed a law that shielded telecommunications companies from being sued for assisting in surveillance. Last month, Walker ruled that the law required him to dismiss the earlier lawsuit as well as about three dozen others filed against telephone companies.
Lawyers from the Electronic Frontier Foundation have said that the new lawsuit, filed against the government rather than the telecommunications industry, is “the other side of the coin” in their challenge to warrantless surveillance.