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Tuesday, July 16, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Judge Urged to Wait as U.S. Defends Spying on Appeal

(CN) - Citing threats to national security, the U.S. government has asked to halt all court proceedings as it appeals a ruling that found its collection of millions of Americans' phone records "likely unconstitutional."

"Contentious litigation over the availability of classified information to litigate these cases against the government defendants, and the significant risks to national security if such information were disclosed, could and should be avoided by allowing the Court of Appeals to rule first on the legal viability of plaintiffs' claims against the government defendants," the Department of Justice wrote Wednesday to U.S. District Judge Richard Leon.

In his December ruling, Leon had said he couldn't imagine a more "indiscriminate" and "arbitrary invasion" than the National Security Administration's domestic surveillance program that opponents have slammed as a dragnet.

Although Leon ordered the NSA to stop the program and destroy all information it had gathered, he stayed that injunction pending the government's expected appeal to the D.C. Circuit.

After filing its notice of appeal Friday, the Justice Department went a step further on Wednesday and asked Leon to temporarily stay all proceedings against it in that underlying case and a similar action led by the same party: Larry Klayman, founder of the conservative Judicial Watch.

The DOJ emphasized that it is not seeking a stay for claims against other defendants in the lawsuit, which include Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Apple.

Further proceedings could require disclosure of "exceptionally sensitive and classified intelligence information regarding the nature and scope of the international terrorist threat to the United States, and the role that the NSA's intelligence-gathering activities have played in meeting that threat," the motion states.

The information that Klayman and the other plaintiffs might seek could pose a threat to national security, DOJ attorneys warned.

"Disclosure of such information about the sources and methods of intelligence-gathering on which these programs depend could cause exceptionally grave damage to national security," the motion states. "The government would oppose efforts by plaintiffs here to compel disclosure of such extraordinarily sensitive information."

The government's eight-page filing also indicates that it will oppose any efforts to provide plaintiffs' counsel with the necessary security clearances to get at the classified information. Such clearance is granted by the Executive Branch.

In defending the NSA surveillance, DOJ officials have said that all three branches of government back the collection of millions of Americans' telephone data, buoyed by the 35 orders issued by the 15 judges on the once-secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

The existence of the FISC and the government's spying program became public when former NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked information to the media about it in June 2013.

One such decision brought to light was an order that forced Verizon to "turn over, every day, metadata about the calls made by each of its subscribers over the three-month period ending on July 19, 2013."

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act allowed for secret courts to authorize government requests for data in the counterterrorism fight. The Patriot Act, passed by Congress after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, broadened the government's ability to collect information about Americans' phone activity.

It was only after Snowden leaked the information that the government admitted to the spying practices.

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