Supreme Court Rejects Wiretapping Suit

Supreme Court Rejects Wiretapping Suit

The U.S. Supreme Court declined February 18 to consider whether plaintiffs who believed they had been spied on without a court order could challenge the legality of such surveillance without tangible proof—even if the proof is classified as a state secret. The rejection of the ACLU v. NSA appeal came two days after the expiration of the Protect America Act, which from August 2007 until February 16 legalized warrantless eavesdropping on phone and internet communications to U.S. homes, workplaces, libraries, and elsewhere from foreign locations if the government suspects that the discussion involves support of terrorism.

ACLU v. NSA was the July 2007 ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit. The American Civil Liberties Union filed suit shortly after the New York Times revealed in December 2005 the existence of the National Security Agency’s post–September 11 Terrorist Surveillance Program. Plaintiffs included prominent attorneys, academic scholars, and national nonprofit organizations.

Jameel Jaffer, who directs the ACLU’s National Security Project, reacted by saying, “It shouldn’t be left to executive branch officials alone to determine what limits apply to their own surveillance activities and whether those limits are being honored.” Steven R. Shapiro, legal director of the ACLU, stated February 19 that the high court’s “unwillingness to act makes it even more important that Congress insist on legislative safeguards that will protect civil liberties without jeopardizing national security.”

Congress is set to tackle that responsibility when legislators return from break February 25 and consider how to reconcile the House and Senate versions of a bill revamping the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978. In answer to the House-passed RESTORE Act, which denied retroactive immunity sought by telecommunications companies for initiating extensive wiretaps as early as 2001 at the behest of the Executive Branch, the Senate approved a version containing an immunity provision. “There’s no compromise on whether these phone companies get liability protection,” President Bush said in a February 21 Reuters wire service story. “The American people understand we need to be listening to the enemy.”

Whether lawmakers grant immunity will directly impact several dozen ongoing lawsuits against telecommunications firms and the government, all of which are before U.S. District Court Judge Vaughn Walker in San Francisco, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Posted on February 22, 2008. Discuss.