18 January 2006

Two groups plan lawsuits over federal eavesdropping

The momentum is building.

As noted in an earlier post, Senator Arlen Spector has vowed to investigate Bush's over-the-top warrantless spying campaign. Now, two separate civil right groups have each filed a lawsuit in the matter.

From The New York Times via truthout:
Two leading civil rights groups say they plan to file lawsuits Tuesday against the Bush administration over its domestic spying program to determine whether the operation was used to monitor 10 defense lawyers, journalists, scholars, political activists and other Americans with ties to the Middle East.

The two lawsuits, which are being filed separately by the American Civil Liberties Union in Federal District Court in Detroit and the Center for Constitutional Rights in Federal District Court in Manhattan, are the first major court challenges to the eavesdropping program.

Both groups are seeking to have the courts order an immediate end to the program, which the groups say is illegal and unconstitutional. The Bush administration has strongly defended the legality and necessity of the surveillance program, and officials said the Justice Department would probably vigorously oppose the lawsuits on national security grounds.

Justice Department officials would not comment on any specific individuals who might have been singled out under the National Security Agency program, and they said the department would review the lawsuits once they were filed.


The lawsuits seek to answer one of the major questions surrounding the eavesdropping program: has it been used solely to single out the international phone calls and e-mail messages of people with known links to Al Qaeda, as President Bush and his most senior advisers have maintained, or has it been abused in ways that civil rights advocates say could hark back to the political spying abuses of the 1960's and 70's?

"There's almost a feeling of déjà vu with this program," said James Bamford, an author and journalist who is one of five individual plaintiffs in the A.C.L.U. lawsuit who say they suspect that the program may have been used to monitor their international communications.

"It's a return to the bad old days of the N.S.A.," said Mr. Bamford, who has written two widely cited books on the intelligence agency.


The lawsuit to be filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights has as plaintiffs four lawyers at the center and a legal assistant there who work on terrorism-related cases at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and overseas, which often involves international e-mail messages and phone calls. Similarly, the plaintiffs in the A.C.L.U. lawsuit include five Americans who work in international policy and terrorism, along with the A.C.L.U. and three other advocacy groups.

"We don't have any direct evidence" that the plaintiffs were monitored by the security agency, said Ann Beeson, associate legal director for the A.C.L.U. "But the plaintiffs have a well-founded belief that they may have been monitored, and there's a real chilling effect in the fear that they can no longer have confidential discussions with clients or sources without the possibility that the N.S.A. is listening."

One of the A.C.L.U. plaintiffs, Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute, said that a Stanford student studying in Egypt conducted research for him on political opposition groups, and that he worried that communications between them on sensitive political topics could be monitored. "How can we communicate effectively if you risk being intercepted by the National Security Agency?" Mr. Diamond said.

Also named as plaintiffs in the A.C.L.U. lawsuit are the journalist Christopher Hitchens, who has written in support of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; Barnett R. Rubin, a scholar at New York University who works in international relations; Tara McKelvey, a senior editor at The American Prospect; the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers; Greenpeace, the environmental advocacy group; and the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the country's largest Islamic advocacy group.
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