Is domestic snooping a form of censorship?

The first federal court decision to address the legality of warrantless eavesdropping on U.S. citizens’ telephone and Internet conversations caused quite a stir when it was handed down Aug. 17.

In that case — American Civil Liberties Union v. National Security Agency — U.S. District Judge Anna Diggs Taylor of the Eastern Michigan District said the Terrorism Surveillance Program:

Violated the First and Fourth amendments to the Constitution.

Ran afoul of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978.

Didn’t rise to a state-secrets privilege in one important aspect.

Strayed beyond the bounds of the president’s authority under the separation-of-powers and inherent-powers doctrines.

Defenders of the surveillance program said the judge was wrong in her conclusions, her reasoning was weak, the ruling was bound to be overturned by higher courts, and besides, she was a liberal.

The opinion has critics from both sides. Howard J. Bashman, who maintains the authoritative legal blog “How Appealing,” told The New York Times: “It does appear that folks on all sides of the spectrum, both those who support it and those who oppose, say the decision is not strongly grounded in legal authority.”

Clash of views

The question of whether the decision will survive the appeals process aside, a number of similar clashes between national security and personal liberties are showing up on court dockets across the nation.

In Maine on Aug. 21, federal prosecutors went to court to keep state utility regulators and Verizon from revealing information about whether the company violated laws protecting customer calling data and other confidential records by participating in the NSA’s domestic-surveillance program. The U.S. Justice Department has filed similar suits in Missouri and New Jersey.

Last month, a federal judge in California turned back the government’s efforts to invoke the state-secrets privilege to dismiss a lawsuit in which the Electronic Frontier Foundation charged that AT&T was cooperating with the NSA in spying on Americans’ domestic and international communications.

In all, more than 17 class-action lawsuits from 13 different federal court districts alleging telecommunications companies’ complicity in government eavesdropping on private communications have been consolidated in the court of U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker in San Francisco.

These important cases pit the federal government and telecommunications companies against civil liberties and privacy organizations. All parties insist they are acting in the best interests of the nation and its citizens.

The ultimate stakeholders: millions of U.S. citizens whose telephone and Internet conversations could wind up in an impersonal government database or in the cross-hairs of anti-terrorism investigators.

Although the ACLU v. NSA decision may not have a direct effect on the other cases, it does raise the essential issue of how best to reconcile the needs of protecting national security and individual freedoms.

The First Amendment is invoked in most of these legal battles.

In the ACLU case, three groups of citizens — lawyers, journalists and scholars — claimed that the warrantless eavesdropping program injured their freedom of speech and association because they “conducted regular international telephone and Internet communications for various uncontestedly legitimate reasons including journalism, the practice of law and scholarship.”

Rights threatened

Those rights always are at risk when government spying programs are formulated without careful attention to balancing the good done for security against the harm done to liberty.

Unfortunately, these needs often are lost in partisan arguments that lay out the issue simplistically as a battle between those who are for security and don’t care about freedom and those who care only about freedom and not about security.

That presents a false choice, as if no ways exist to develop policies and programs that resolve the conflict between potential harm to our security and the potential damage to our rights.

To approach the problem any other way is to create an environment in which citizens fear their government instead of or in addition to their enemies.

If security trumps freedom, the question arises about what it is we are protecting. Freedom of speech, even dissent, is not just at the core of our freedom, it is an essential component of security.

Interestingly, the final words of Taylor’s ruling are from Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren’s 1967 opinion in U.S. v. Robel: “Implicit in the term “national defense’ is the notion of defending those values and ideas which set this nation apart. . . . It would indeed be ironic if, in the name of national defense, we would sanction the subversion of . . . those liberties.”

The writer is First Amendment ombudsman at the First Amendment Center. Contact him at 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, Va. 22209, or at pmcmasters@fac.org.

 

 

 

 

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