SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - Groups across the political spectrum sued the National Security Agency in Federal Court Tuesday for its dragnet collection of telephone records; plaintiffs include Unitarian churches, gun groups and the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
The First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles and 18 co-plaintiffs sued the NSA, the FBI, the Department of Justice and their top officials, including Attorney General Eric Holder.
Details of the NSA dragnet were revealed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, who has been living for three weeks at a Moscow airport, fearing U.S. prosecution.
The 21-page lawsuit "challenges an illegal and unconstitutional program of dragnet electronic surveillance, specifically the bulk acquisition, collection, storage, retention, and searching of telecommunications information (the 'Associational Tracking Program') conducted by the National Security Agency and the other defendants," according to the complaint.
The "vast" program, in operation since at least October 2001, the plaintiffs say, "collects telephone communications information for all telephone calls transiting the networks of all major American telecommunications companies, including Verizon, AT&T, and Sprint, ostensibly under the authority of section 215 of the USA Patriot Act, codified at 50 U.S.C. § 1861."
The complaint continues: "The communications information that defendants collect in the Associational Tracking Program is retained and stored by defendants in one or more databases. The program collects information concerning all calls wholly within the United States, including local telephone calls, as well as calls between the United States and abroad, regardless of a connection to international terrorism, reasonable suspicion of criminality, or any other form of wrongdoing. This information is stored for at least five years. Defendants have indiscriminately obtained, and stored the telephone communications information of millions of ordinary Americans as part of the Associational Tracking Program.
"Defendants search and analyze the Associational Tracking Program's database(s) for various purposes, including but not limited to, obtaining the communications history of particular phone numbers, which, when aggregated, reveals those numbers' contacts and associations over time.
"Defendants' collection of telephone communications information includes, but is not limited to, records indicating who each customer communicates with, at what time, for how long and with what frequency communications occur. This communications information discloses the expressive and private associational connections among individuals and group, including plaintiffs and their members and staff. ...
"The bulk collection of telephone communications information without a valid, particularized warrant supported by probable cause violates the First, Fourth and Fifth Amendments, as well as statutory prohibitions and limitations on electronic surveillance."
The Electronic Frontier Foundation - the plaintiffs' lead counsel - said in a statement that the "mass, untargeted collection" of such information gives the government a "dramatically detailed picture into our associational ties."
"The First Amendment protects the freedom to associate and express political views as a group, but the NSA's mass, untargeted collection of Americans' phone records violates that right by giving the government a dramatically detailed picture into our associational ties," the Electronic Frontier Foundation's legal director Cindy Cohn said in the statement.
"Who we call, how often we call them, and how long we speak shows the government what groups we belong to or associate with, which political issues concern us, and our religious affiliation. Exposing this information - especially in a massive, untargeted way over a long period of time - violates the Constitution and the basic First Amendment tests that have been in place for over 50 years."
Cohn said that people who hold controversial views must band together to "advocate effectively" for First Amendment protections.
"People who hold controversial views - whether it's about gun ownership policies, drug legalization, or immigration - often must express views as a group in order to act and advocate effectively," Cohn said. "But fear of individual exposure when participating in political debates over high-stakes issues can dissuade people from taking part. That's why the Supreme Court ruled in 1958 that membership lists of groups have strong First Amendment protection. Telephone records, especially complete records collected over many years, are even more invasive than membership lists, since they show casual or repeated inquiries as well as full membership."
Rev. Rick Hoyt, of the First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles, said the church "has a proud history of working for justice and protecting people in jeopardy for expressing their political views."
"In the 1950s, we resisted the McCarthy hysteria and supported blacklisted Hollywood writers and actors, and we fought California's 'loyalty oaths' all the way to the Supreme Court. And in the 1980s, we gave sanctuary to refugees from civil wars in Central America," Hoyt said in a statement released by the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
"The principles of our faith often require our church to take bold stands on controversial issues. We joined this lawsuit to stop the illegal surveillance of our members and the people we serve. Our church members and our neighbors who come to us for help should not fear that their participation in the church might have consequences for themselves or their families. This spying makes people afraid to belong to our church community."
Additional plaintiffs are the Bill of Rights Defense Committee; Calguns Foundation; California Association of Federal Firearms Licensees; Council on American-Islamic Relations - California; Council on American-Islamic Relations - Ohio; Council on American-Islamic Relations - Foundation; Franklin Armory; Free Press; Free Software Foundation; Human Rights Watch; Media Alliance; National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, California Chapter; Open Technology Institute; People for the American Way; Public Knowledge; Students for Sensible Drug Policy; TechFreedom; and Unitarian Universalist Service Committee.
They seek an order declaring the Associational Tracking Program unconstitutional, an injunction prohibiting the continued use of the program, and fees and costs.
The plaintiffs are represented by Cohn; Rachael Meny with Keker & Van Nest LLP; Richard Wiebe; Aram Antaramian, of Berkeley; and Thomas Moore, of Palo Alto.
Last week, a federal judge rejected the National Security Agency's attempt to dismiss a long-pending companion case - Jewel v. NSA
- and allowed the class action lawsuit to move forward under the supervision of a public federal court.
Separately, in June, the ACLU sued
the federal government over the secret phone surveillance program, calling it "akin to snatching every American's address book."
Edward Snowden's revelations about the NSA spying have made headlines around the world. But few, if any, reports have concentrated on why the NSA, the nation's most electronically powerful and secretive spy agency, would give private, part-time contractors access to such powerful secrets. The contracting out of federal jobs, even military ones, has been promoted since the 1980s as a way for the government to save money.