MANHATTAN (CN) – The Justice Department is trying to delay civil proceedings over the controversial data-collection program that Edward Snowden brought to light last month, the American Civil Liberties Union warned Tuesday.
“Nothing in the letter surprised us,” ACLU attorney Patrick Toomey said in an interview, referring to the Justice Department’s first legal defense in the case that nonprofit filed last month.
The ACLU has likened the NSA’s “dragnet” collection of phone records for the secret surveillance program “to snatching every American’s address book – with annotations detailing whom we spoke to, when we talked, for how long, and from where.”
“It gives the government a comprehensive record of our associations and public movements, revealing a wealth of detail about our familial, political, professional, religious, and intimate associations,” the complaint states.
Such comprehensive access tramples on First Amendment guarantees of free association and Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure, the ACLU said.
Toomey said Tuesday that the letter U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara filed with the court Thursday “didn’t address issues we raised,” involving violations of the First and Fourth Amendments.
The letter emphasized that the government is not actually listening to or recording “just anyone’s phone calls.”
Snowden brought the existence of the NSA program to light by sending the Guardian and the Washington Post a secret court 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 ACLU said the government confirmed the authenticity of that order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC). Uncle Sam also allegedly indicated that the “order is part of a program that has been in place for seven years and that collects records of all telephone communications of every customer of a major phone company, including Verizon, AT&T, and Sprint.”
Though the Patriot Act radically expanded surveillance powers of law enforcement agencies, the ACLU noted that the law still mandates a relevance showing for records targeted by an authorized investigation.
Bharara’s defense of the program echoed recent congressional testimony from the directors of the FBI and NSA, as well as public statements by President Barack Obama.
The secret court orders stipulated that the recorded information “cannot include cell-site location data or the names, addresses or identities of the parties to any communication,” Bharara wrote.
When “specific facts” support “a reasonable, articulable suspicion” that a phone number in question is “associated with a specific foreign terrorist organization previously identified to and approved by the court,” NSA analysts then query the database and provide “leads to the FBI or others in the Intelligence Community for counterterrorism purposes,” according to the letter.
Bharara also urged the court to dismiss the complaint because “the requested injunction is irreconcilable with the public interest.”
Though an answer to the complaint is not due until Aug. 23, Bharara asked to file a combined motion to dismiss sooner than Sept. 16.
Bharara said the court should wait on an interagency review that is expected to end by Sept. 3.
Judge Pauley agreed Tuesday to discuss the government’s anticipated motion to dismiss at a July 25 conference he scheduled about a week and a half earlier. Pauley will address the briefing schedule at the Thursday conference as well.
The ACLU meanwhile had hoped to use that conference to lay out their demands for an injunction.
Toomey said the ACLU will “push the court” Wednesday, possibly in camera, to keep the case on schedule.
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