Nearly two dozen political and religious groups from across the ideological spectrum, including the CalGuns Foundation and Greenpeace, sued the National Security Agency in San Francisco federal district court on Tuesday. The civil lawsuit challenges the spy agency's authority to harvest and store phone records.
The suit was brought by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights advocacy group and law firm. It asserts that the NSA's "dragnet surveillance" -- which extends to millions of Americans -- is illegal and unconstitutional.
Other organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union, have also recently sued the NSA in response to leaked information on its surveillance programs. This most recent case is especially notable in that it represents a broad coalition of groups that often don't have much use for each other.
Plaintiffs include GreenPeace, Human Rights Watch and the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. CalGuns, which lobbies against more restrictive gun laws, and one California gun manufacturer, Franklin Armory, have also joined the case, as have religious groups including the Council on American-Islamic Relations. The case seeks an injunction to stop the NSA's "Associational Tracking Program," which gathers and stores vast amounts of phone records from American telecom companies.
In June, government contractor Edward Snowden admitted to leaking top secret documents that described in stark detail a range of phone and Internet data collection by the NSA, the giant federal eavesdropping organization. Those disclosures included a secret court order authorizing the government to collect phone metadata, such as the location and time of a placed call, from all Verizon customers.
Cindy Cohn, the Electronic Frontier Foundation legal director, said Tuesday that the records gathering poses an especially grave threat to the First Amendment, which safeguards speech and assembly rights.
"The freedom of association is something we all enjoy regardless of our political stripe," she said. "When the government has access to your communications records for a period of up to five years, it creates a chilling effect on your willingness to participate in political discourse and join political groups."
The Electronic Frontier Foundation is already engaged in a long-running legal battle with the NSA over the legality and constitutionality of the surveillance programs. As The Huffington Post previously reported, that case has recently gained momentum, owing in part to the Snowden disclosures and in part to a court decision that dismissed the central defense made by the federal government -- essentially that any presentation of evidence in the case would damage national security.
The recent court decision in the other Electronic Frontier Foundation case permitted the foundation to proceed with its constitutional challenges to the surveillance intact. The lawsuit filed Tuesday makes similar claims that the spying violates constitutional protections. Along with the First Amendment, the lawsuit claims the NSA is infringing on the Fourth Amendment, which guards against unreasonable search and seizure.
Both cases are considerably bolstered by broad admissions by top U.S. security officials that the gathering of phone metadata is taking place. Officials have defended the spying as a vital tool to help catch would-be terrorists and thwart terrorism threats. The collection has been authorized by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, a secret judicial body that issued a 2008 opinion sanctioning the collection, the officials have further asserted. (The head of that court recently called for the government to release the opinion.)
The National Security Agency referred questions about the case to the Department of Justice, which did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Cohn said the organizations that joined the case told her that some of their members have expressed fears that the government could monitor them because they are associated with the groups.
On a press call Tuesday afternoon, the head of one such organization, the libertarian-leaning Bill of Rights Defense Committee, said several government contractors had told him they were afraid to march in a recent rally for fear that they could lose their jobs.
"These groups don't agree on very much, but they all agree on the right to associate freely," Cohn said.
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