DETROIT - The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Michigan today urged a federal appeals court to uphold a lower court ruling declaring the government's warrantless National Security Agency wiretapping program illegal, calling the government's assertion of unchecked spying powers "radical" and a threat to American democracy.
Executive spying on Americans without a warrant is precisely the kind of illegal practice that the founders of our country designed the Constitution to prevent," said Ann Beeson, Associate Legal Director of the ACLU. "In a democracy, no one is above the law, not even the President."
At issue is a program, secretly authorized by President Bush in 2001, directing the National Security Agency to listen in on the phone calls and emails of people within the United States, including U.S. citizens, without a warrant.
On August 17, in the first and only ruling by a federal court to strike down the controversial program, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan ruled that the warrantless wiretapping program is illegal.
"There are no hereditary Kings in America and no powers not created by the Constitution. So all 'inherent powers' must derive from that Constitution," Judge Anna Diggs Taylor said in a widely quoted opinion.
Judge Taylor found that the program violated the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), which was passed in the 1970s to curb executive abuses that included spying on civil rights leaders and Members of Congress. FISA requires a warrant before the executive can wiretap Americans. Judge Taylor also found that the program violated the separation of powers because it circumvented Congress's power to regulate presidential authority, and that it violated Americans' rights to free speech and privacy under the First and Fourth Amendments of the Constitution. The government appealed the decision to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, which granted a stay of the decision pending appeal.
According to legal papers filed by the ACLU today, "The government seeks not simply to dismiss this case, but to prevent any court from reviewing the legality of the Program ... perhaps most disturbingly, the government's sweeping theory of executive power would allow the President to violate any law passed by Congress. This theory presents a profound threat to our democratic system. The government complains that the district court overreached, but it is the government's theory that is radical, not the district court's rejection of it."
The ACLU also today challenged the district court's dismissal of claims that the government is illegally data-mining the phone and email records of Americans, arguing that dismissing the claims on state secrets grounds was premature in that the claims could be decided based on publicly available facts.
The ACLU filed its lawsuit in January on behalf of a group of prominent journalists, scholars, attorneys and national nonprofit organizations who frequently communicate by phone and e-mail with people in the Middle East. The ruling found that the NSA program is disrupting the plaintiffs' ability to talk with sources, locate witnesses, conduct scholarship and engage in advocacy.
The case, ACLU v. NSA, was filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan. Attorneys in the case are Beeson, Jameel Jaffer and Melissa Goodman of the national ACLU, and Kary Moss and Michael Steinberg of the ACLU of Michigan.
In Washington, the ACLU is urging Congress to live up to its constitutional responsibility to provide checks and balances to the executive and judicial branches, de-fund the illegal spying program and undertake a thorough investigation into the NSA warrantless eavesdropping. Between its return on November 13 and its adjournment, the 109th Congress may vote on key issues such as a potential $15 billion give-away to telephone companies which would immunize companies from any liability for participating in the NSA spying program. President Bush has also made clear his intention to push through legislation legitimizing the illegal NSA spying program during the "lame-duck" Congressional session.
Legal papers filed today are available online at: www.aclu.org/pdfs/safefree/BriefAppelleesNSA.pdf
More information on ACLU v. NSA is online at: www.aclu.org/nsaspying