NEW YORK — Civil rights groups sued the U.S. government Thursday to try to force it to reveal more about the surveillance of Americans' international e-mails and telephone calls.
The American Civil Liberties Union and the New York Civil Liberties Union said in the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Manhattan that the public has been kept "almost entirely in the dark" about implementation of the FISA Amendments Act of 2008.
Among other things, the law shielded telecom companies from lawsuits under the warrantless wiretapping efforts initiated after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The suit seeks a court order requiring the government to immediately process requests for information made by the civil rights groups about six months ago.
According to the complaint, the 2008 law gave the government "virtually limitless power to collect Americans' international e-mails and telephone calls en masse, without a warrant, without suspicion of any kind, and with only very limited judicial oversight."
The suit said the public deserves to know how broadly the government has interpreted the law, how the surveillance powers granted by the law have been used, whether those powers have been abused and how many U.S. citizens' and residents' communications have been collected.
Janice Oh, a spokeswoman for government lawyers, declined to comment.
The suit said news reports suggest that the government has been collecting international communications by the millions and have used the law to improperly collect domestic communications as well.
It said the law's scheduled expiration at the end of 2012 makes it necessary to provide the public with as much information as possible as the merits of the law continue to be debated.
"Congress intentionally made this controversial law temporary so that it – and the public – could evaluate whether the radical changes the FAA wrought to the government's electronic spying regime were wise, necessary, working effectively in practice, and sufficiently protective of U.S. citizens' and residents' privacy rights," the lawsuit said.