WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
21 May 2012 | News

Supreme Court to Hear Case Challenging Warrantless Wiretapping Law

WOLA Statement

The Supreme Court has agreed to consider whether a broad coalition of media, human rights, legal, and labor organizations represented by the ACLU have the right to challenge the constitutionality of a controversial law that authorizes the U.S. government to conduct dragnet surveillance—without probable cause or a warrant—on Americans’ international emails and phone calls. (See ACLU’s press release below.)

WOLA is proud to be a member of the coalition challenging warrantless wiretapping allowed in the FISA Amendments Act of 2008. According to WOLA’s Executive Director Joy Olson: As our human rights colleagues in Latin America know through hard experience, when government insists on acting in complete secrecy, bad things are bound to happen. It is sad that this case has gotten to the level of the Supreme Court. Now they will decide whether or not a lower court will even let us argue that the warrantless wiretapping of human rights groups is wrong and hurts our work.”   


Supreme Court to Hear ACLU Case Challenging Warrantless Wiretapping Law

Court to Consider Obama Administration’s Claim That ACLU’s

Plaintiffs Lack Standing to Sue Over Dragnet Surveillance


May 21, 2012

CONTACT: Josh Bell, (212) 549-2666; [email protected]

NEW YORK – The U.S. Supreme Court today agreed to consider whether plaintiffs represented by the American Civil Liberties Union have the right to challenge the constitutionality of a controversial law that authorizes the National Security Agency to conduct dragnet surveillance of Americans’ international emails and phone calls.

At issue is an appeals court ruling that allowed the ACLU’s challenge to the law – called the FISA Amendments Act of 2008 – to move forward.

“The appeals court properly recognized that our clients have a reasonable basis to fear that the government may be monitoring their conversations, even though it has no reason to suspect them of having engaged in any unlawful activities,” said Jameel Jaffer, the ACLU’s deputy legal director and lead counsel in the case. “All that has been decided so far is that the constitutional limits on the government’s surveillance powers can and should be tested in court. We are hopeful that the Supreme Court will agree.”

The ACLU filed the lawsuit in July 2008 on behalf of a broad group of attorneys and human rights, labor, legal and media organizations whose work requires them to engage in sensitive telephone and email communications with people outside the U.S. They include colleagues, clients, sources, foreign officials and victims of human rights abuses. The coalition includes Amnesty International USA, Human Rights Watch, The Nation and the Service Employees International Union. The Justice Department claims the plaintiffs should not be able to sue without first showing they have actually been monitored under the program – but it also argues that the government should not be required to disclose if plaintiffs have been monitored.

In March 2011, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit rejected that Catch-22 logic.  The government’s request for reconsideration by the full Second Circuit was rejected in September by a 6-6 vote.

“Given the importance of this law, the Supreme Court’s decision to grant review is not surprising,” said Steven R. Shapiro, ACLU legal director. “What is disappointing is the Obama administration’s effort to insulate the broadest surveillance program ever enacted by Congress from meaningful judicial review.”

Little is known about how the FISA Amendments Act has been used. In response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by the ACLU, the government revealed that every six-month review of the act had identified “compliance incidents,” suggesting either an inability or an unwillingness to properly safeguard Americans’ privacy rights. The government has withheld the details of those “compliance incidents,” however, including statistics relating to abuses of the act.

The act is scheduled to sunset in December. The ACLU is calling for amendments that would limit surveillance to suspected terrorists and criminals, require the government to be more transparent about how the law is being used and place stronger restrictions on the retention and dissemination of information that is collected.

Attorneys on the lawsuit challenging the FISA Amendments Act are Jaffer, Shapiro, Alexander Abdo and Mitra Ebadolahi of the ACLU; Arthur N. Eisenberg, Christopher T. Dunn and Melissa Goodman of the New York Civil Liberties Union; and Charles S. Sims and Matthew J. Morris of Proskauer Rose LLP.


More information on the ACLU’s lawsuit challenging the law: www.aclu.org/national-security/amnesty-et-al-v-clapper

More information on the ACLU’s FOIA lawsuit: www.aclu.org/fixFISA



Photo by Mark Fisher