EFF Sues Feds to Stop Domestic Spying

Broadening its fight against the government’s “unconstitutional and illegal dragnet surveillance” of millions of Americans, a watchdog group today filed a lawsuit against the National Security Agency, the president, vice president and other government agencies and officials involved in the domestic surveillance program.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) already has a pending case against AT&T for its role in supplying the government with its subscribers’ phone records. The new lawsuit, Jewel vs. NSA, was filed on behalf of five AT&T customers seeking to shut down the surveillance program and hold those who authorized it accountable in the form of civil damages.

“The suit alleges that the spying violates the constitution, as well as a variety of federal privacy laws,” Kevin Bankston, a senior attorney with the EFF, said on a conference call with reporters.

“Our lawsuit today should sound a clear warning to future heads of the White House,” Bankston said. “If you break the law and violate Americans’ privacy, there will be consequences.”

The EFF has been frustrated in its other attempt to derail the surveillance program, where Congress granted immunity to the telecom companies that were providing communications records to the NSA. That case, Hepting vs. AT&T, begun in 2006, is currently mired in the EFF’s attempts to overturn that grant of immunity. With today’s case, the group is hoping to fast-track the issue by going after the government directly.

In addition to President Bush and Vice President Cheney, the suit also names David Addington, Cheney’s chief of staff, former-Attorneys General Alberto Gonzalez and John Ashcroft as defendants, and several current top defense and security officials.

The suit also names John Does Nos. 1 through 100 as defendants to cover the officials involved in the surveillance program whose identities the EFF expects to surface in the course of the lawsuit.

In pursuit of civil damages

The EFF is seeking an injunction that would halt the warrantless collection of AT&T subscribers’ phone records and destroy the data that has already been collected. The suit also aims to extract civil damages against all involved officials save for the president, who has already been found immune from civil litigation in the matter.

Over the summer, Congress passed an amendment to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) that expands the authorization for collecting information on U.S. enemies outside of the country. But Bankston said that the EFF would argue that FISA cannot apply that to the massive logs of calls between people within the United States that the NSA is collecting from AT&T.

“We do not think that statute authorizes the conduct we allege,” he said. “If it is being used for that, then a great fraud is being perpetrated.”

The lawsuit was introduced in the federal court of the Northern District of California, where it will likely be heard by Judge Vaughn Walker, who is also presiding over the EFF’s case against AT&T.

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