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Obama Administration quietly expands Bush's legal defense of wiretapping program
John Byrne
Published: Tuesday April 7, 2009


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In a stunning defense of President George W. Bush's warrantless wiretapping program, President Barack Obama has broadened the government's legal argument for immunizing his Administration and government agencies from lawsuits surrounding the National Security Agency's eavesdropping efforts.

In fact, a close read of a government filing last Friday reveals that the Obama Administration has gone beyond any previous legal claims put forth by former President Bush.

Responding to a lawsuit filed by a civil liberties group, the Justice Department argued that the government was protected by "sovereign immunity" from lawsuits because of a little-noticed clause in the Patriot Act. The government's legal filing can be read here (PDF).

For the first time, the Obama Administration's brief contends that government agencies cannot be sued for wiretapping American citizens even if there was intentional violation of US law. They maintain that the government can only be sued if the wiretaps involve "willful disclosure" -- a higher legal bar.

"A 'willful violation' in Section 223(c(1) refers to the 'willful disclosure' of intelligence information by government agents, as described in Section 223(a)(3) and (b)(3), and such disclosures by the Government are the only actions that create liability against the United States," Obama Assistant Attorney General Michael Hertz wrote (page 5).

Senior Staff Attorney Kevin Bankston at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which is suing the government over the warrantless wiretapping program, notes that the government has previously argued that the government had "sovereign immunity" against civil action under the FISA statute. But he says that this is the first time that they've invoked changes to the Patriot Act in claiming the US government is immune from claims of illegal spying under any other federal surveillance statute.

"They are arguing this based on changes to the law made by the USA PATRIOT Act, Section 223," Bankston said in an email to Raw Story. "We've never been fans of 223--it made it much harder to sue the U.S. for illegal spying, see an old write-up of mine at: http://w2.eff.org/patriot/sunset/223.php --but no one's ever suggested before that it wholly immunized the U.S. government against suits under all the surveillance statutes."

Salon columnist and constitutional scholar Glenn Greenwald -- who is generally supportive of progressive interpretations of the law -- says the Obama Administration has "invented a brand new claim" of immunity from spying litigation.

"In other words, beyond even the outrageously broad 'state secrets' privilege invented by the Bush administration and now embraced fully by the Obama administration, the Obama DOJ has now invented a brand new claim of government immunity, one which literally asserts that the U.S. Government is free to intercept all of your communications (calls, emails and the like) and -- even if what they're doing is blatantly illegal and they know it's illegal -- you are barred from suing them unless they 'willfully disclose' to the public what they have learned," Greenwald wrote Monday.

He also argues that the Justice Department's response is exclusively a product of the new Administration, noting that three months have elapsed since President Bush left office.

"This brief and this case are exclusively the Obama DOJ's, and the ample time that elapsed -- almost three full months -- makes clear that it was fully considered by Obama officials," Greenwald wrote. "Yet they responded exactly as the Bush DOJ would have. This demonstrates that the Obama DOJ plans to invoke the exact radical doctrines of executive secrecy which Bush used -- not only when the Obama DOJ is taking over a case from the Bush DOJ, but even when they are deciding what response should be made in the first instance."

"Everything for which Bush critics excoriated the Bush DOJ -- using an absurdly broad rendition of 'state secrets' to block entire lawsuits from proceeding even where they allege radical lawbreaking by the President and inventing new claims of absolute legal immunity -- are now things the Obama DOJ has left no doubt it intends to embrace itself," he adds.

Both the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union say the "sovereign immunity" claim in the context of the case goes farther than any previous Bush Administration claims of wiretap immunity.

Writing about the changes to the Patriot Act last year, the EFF asserted that revisions to the Act involved troubling new developments for US law.

"Unlike with any other defendant, if you want to sue the federal government for illegal wiretapping you have to first go through an administrative procedure with the agency that did the wiretapping," the Foundation wrote. "That means, essentially, that you have to politely complain to the illegal wiretappers and tip them off to your legal strategy, and then wait for a while as they decide whether to do anything about it before you can sue them in court."

Moreover, they said, "Before PATRIOT, in addition to being able to sue for money damages, you could sue for declaratory relief from a judge. For example, an Internet service provider could ask the court to declare that a particular type of wiretapping that the government wants to do on its network is illegal. One could also sue for an injunction from the court, ordering that any illegal wiretapping stop. PATRIOT section 223 significantly reduced a judge's ability to remedy unlawful surveillance, making it so you can only sue the government for money damages. This means, for example, that no one could sue the government to stop an ongoing illegal wiretap. At best, one could sue for the government to pay damages while the illegal tap continued!"

The Obama Administration has not publicly commented on stories that revealed their filing on Monday.

Correction: EFF Attorney Kevin Bankston's comments about the government's previous sovereign immunity claims were incorrectly summarized in an earlier version of this article. They have been corrected.


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