The Obama administration will not be allowed to terminate a lawsuit by asserting that a civil argument would risk exposing national secrets, a federal judge ruled Monday in what has already been called an important advance for civil liberties advocates.
The suit, known as Jewel vs. National Security Agency, was originally filed in 2008 by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and a group of AT&T customers who claimed Bush administration officials had conducted an “illegal and unconstitutional program of dragnet communications surveillance” by operating warrantless surveillance on US citizens.
Attention has re-focused on the case in recent weeks after fugitive whistleblower Edward Snowden leaked NSA documents revealing the government’s widespread domestic and foreign monitoring of telephone and Internet activity.
US District Judge Jeffrey White in San Francisco, California refused to allow the Obama administration to end the lawsuit by citing the ‘state secrets’ privilege. By invoking that privilege, the EFF argued, the federal government hoped to prove widespread warrantless surveillance is not subject to judicial review.
“The government has unlawfully solicited and obtained from telecommunications companies such as AT&T the complete and ongoing disclosure of the private telephone and Internet transactional records of those companies’ millions of customers, communications records indicating who the customers communicated with, when and for long, among other sensitive information,” the technology and civil rights group wrote on its website.
“This transactional information is analyzed by computers in conjunction with the vast quantity of communications content acquired by government’s network of surveillance devices, in what has been described as a vast data-mining operation.”
While Judge White did not explicitly discontinue the lawsuit, Reuters noted, he may have introduced limitations strict enough to only delay the end of the case or tie it up in court indefinitely. He ordered the NSA to provide more data on how the “recent disclosure of the government’s continuing surveillance activities” could impact national security.
White requested “further briefing” from both sides, writing that certain information from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which authorizes the NSA requests, “should be declassified and immediately released to the public.”
White’s decision is regarded as the first step in what could be a long process, but one Cindy Cohn, the legal director of the EFF, said was “a huge victory and a very courageous decision.”