NSA Opponents Make Strange Bedfellows
MANHATTAN (CN) - Legal opponents of the National Security Agency's sweeping domestic spying powers include the National Rifle Association, prominent congressmen, a former U.S. vice president, a philosophy professor, and advocacy groups for journalists and writers.
NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden had exposed the agency's mass collection of Verizon telephone data several months ago, setting off controversy, an international manhunt for the asylum-cloaked leaker and a flurry of litigation from coast-to-coast.
In the wake of disclosures, Virginia prosecutors handed down an indictment against Snowden, and the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) set up a public website for the first time. The court operates in an undisclosed room of the E. Barrett Prettyman Federal Courthouse in Washington.
Civil liberties groups have also filed federal lawsuits in New York and California attempting to rein in the NSA's reach.
U.S. District Judge William Pauley presides over the Manhattan case, in which the American Civil Liberties Union wants a preliminary injunction to stop the spy agency from collecting vast amounts of telephone data.
Over the past week, dozens of legislators, professors and advocacy groups lined up to support the ACLU in that effort.
The civil liberties group's supports now include the architects of two key pieces of legislation that the NSA claims entitles it to mine the telephone metadata of U.S. citizens: the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and the post-Sept. 11, 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force (AUMF).
Former Democratic Vice President Walter Mondale and Sen. Gary Hart, D-Colo., told the court recently that they designed FISA to safeguard the privacy of U.S. citizens in the wake of the Nixon administration's abuses of powers. They called the NSA's current surveillance program far broader than those they set out to restrain in the 1970s.
Days later, Rep. James Sensenbrenner told the court that he helped write the AUMF, and that lawyers for the NSA were improperly citing it to justify their program.
The Wisconsin Republican said he "vehemently disputes that Congress intended to authorize the program challenged by this lawsuit, namely, the unprecedented, massive collection of the telecommunications data of millions of innocent Americans."
Sensenbrenner also pulled no punches in an accompanying statement he released via the digital civil liberties group, the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
"A large, intrusive government - however benevolent it claims to be-is not immune from the simple truth that centralized power threatens liberty," said Sensenbrenner, who chaired the House Judiciary Committee during the Patriot Act debates. "Americans are increasingly wary that Washington is violating the privacy rights guaranteed to us by the Fourth Amendment."
High-profiles critics of the NSA, representing diverse political interests, continue to seek the New York court's ear.
The National Rifle Association claims to have observed a "chilling effect" among would-be supporters who fear having their ties to the gun group known to the U.S. government.
"For example, many contributors to the [political action committee] 'donate $199.99, presumably because they are under the misimpression that the FEC's disclosure requirement is triggered by annual donations at, rather than above $200,'" their brief states, quoting the NRA's treasurer Mary Rose Adkins.
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press noted that the freeze has extended to journalists trying to speak with sources.
"This heavy-handed business isn't chilling, it's just plain cold," the brief states, quoting Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson.
Courthouse News is one of the 19 news organizations represented by the press rights group in the brief.
One does not have to be a reporter in the national security realm to be stifled by mass surveillance, PEN American Center notes in yet another amicus, or friend-of-the-court, brief.
The group, whose acronym indicates its Playwright, Essayist and Novelist members, pointed out that some of the most renowned fiction authors in the United States were subjected to surveillance, including James Baldwin, Truman Capote, Willa Cather, John Cheever, T.S. Eliot, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dashiell Hammett, Lillian Hellman, Ernest Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis, Jack London, Henry Miller, Eugene O'Neill, Dorothy Parker, Carl Sandburg, Gertrude Stein, John Steinbeck, James Thurber, Thornton Wilder, Tennessee Williams, Thomas Wolfe and Richard Wright.
University of Connecticut professor Michael Lynch cited Rene Descarte, John Locke and Michel Foucault in his philosophic appraisal of government surveillance.
"Our natural interest in informational privacy stems from our nature as persons with privileged access to our own thoughts - our hopes, our plans, our fears, and our dreams," his brief states. "Invasions of informational privacy can harm personal liberty, and the government's dragnet acquisition of telephone and email data does just that."
Even if the NSA did not abuse this power, the vast data mining program is "inconsistent with the demands of the Constitution and democracy itself," he continued.
"Indeed, the connection between privacy and human dignity illustrates a further fact: that a government that sees its citizen's private information as subject to tracking and collection has implicitly adopted a stance towards those citizens inconsistent with the respect due to their inherent dignity as autonomous individuals," the brief states. "It has begun to see them not as persons, but as something to be understood and controlled."