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Human Rights Watch Sues Feds Over Mass Surveillance

LOS ANGELES (CN) - Human Rights Watch wants to shut down the bulk collection of millions of Americans' call records, claiming the program unconstitutionally disrupts its work in foreign countries.

Human Rights Watch filed a federal civil complaint Tuesday for violation of the First and Fourth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution challenging the "untargeted and suspicionless surveillance" of its call records without judicial oversight.

The group claims that the Drug Enforcement Administration program has been in existence since the 1990s and sweeps up millions of call records to foreign countries targeted for international drug trafficking.

Unlike the National Security Agency's warrantless surveillance program, the government insists that the program has been suspended since 2013, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which represents the plaintiff.

Human Rights Watch wants a federal judge to make sure the program is shut down for good.

"Both the First and Fourth Amendment protect Americans from this kind of overreaching surveillance. This lawsuit aims to vindicate HRW's rights, and the rights of all Americans, to make calls overseas without being subject to government surveillance," EFF staff attorney Nate Cardozo said in a statement.

Human Rights Watch says its staff is regularly in contact with individuals in targeted countries, including Iran, Afghanistan, Burma, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, India, Jamaica, Laos, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Panama, Peru and Venezuela.

"At Human Rights Watch we work with people who are sometimes in life-or-death situations, where speaking out can make them a target," said Human Rights Watch attorney Dinah PoKempner. "Whom we communicate with and when is often extraordinarily sensitive - and it's information that we wouldn't turn over to the government lightly."

The group says that bulk collection of phone records damages its efforts to advocate for human rights because it cannot assure individuals in those countries that U.S. law enforcement will not search or have access to their communications.

"Plaintiff's associations and human rights advocacy efforts, as well as those of its members and staff, are substantially burdened by the fact that the mass surveillance program creates a permanent government record of all plaintiff's telephone communications with contacts in the designated countries," the 18-page complaint states.

According to the lawsuit, the mass surveillance program has been "carried out in secret for years" and was reportedly in place by the 1990s.

Earlier this year, the government admitted the existence of the DEA program in a criminal case against a man accused of illegally exporting goods to Iran. In a January declaration, a DEA agent said that calls made from the United States to designated foreign countries were intercepted as part of law enforcement efforts against the international drug trade.

"The DEA's program is yet another example of federal agencies overreaching their surveillance authority in secret," said EFF attorney Mark Rumold. "We want a court to force the DEA to destroy the records it illegally collected and to declare - once and for all - that bulk collection of Americans' records is unconstitutional."

The lawsuit also names the FBI, the Department of Justice, and the Department of Homeland Security as defendants.

The Justice Department could not immediately be reached for comment.

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