The Supreme Court on Monday agreed to hear a US government challenge to a lawsuit against its electronic surveillance program, which allows authorities to eavesdrop on Americans’ overseas phone calls and emails.
The court agreed to hear the case Clapper vs. Amnesty International, the Barack Obama administration’s petition to the US top court in which it seeks to throw out a suit challenging US government monitoring of Americans’ international communications.
Obama administration lawyers appealed to the highest US court on behalf of James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, and maintains that because the surveillance targets foreigners, the US plaintiffs have no standing to sue.
But Amnesty International, along with other human rights groups, media organizations and attorneys, maintain that they have standing to challenge the wiretapping of overseas suspects because their own private communications could also be intercepted in the electronic monitoring.
The US appeals court in March 2011 allowed the suit challenging the constitutionality of the federal government’s electronic surveillance program targeting persons outside the United States.
The court ruled that the plaintiffs bringing the suit had a “reasonable fear” that their sensitive communications could be intercepted and had taken costly measures to avoid such intrusions.
Amnesty, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other plaintiffs maintain that the secret surveillance violates the US Constitution’s Fourth Amendment ban on unreasonable searches.
The appeals court ruling “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, deputy legal director at the ACLU.
“The constitutionality of the government’s surveillance powers can and should be tested in court. We are hopeful that the Supreme Court will agree,” Jaffer said.
The law at issue is the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) which was passed in the waning days of the George W. Bush administration.
In the 2008 measure, Congress gave the federal government broad powers to monitor international phone calls and emails in hopes of thwarting potential terrorist plots.
The legislation allows extended electronic surveillance of non-Americans believed to be outside the United States and who raised the suspicions of US intelligence officials.
But the plaintiffs in the suit have said they consider the wiretapping to be a form of “dragnet” surveillance which would would likely sweep up private calls and emails of thousands of Americans who are not targets but who have contact with people abroad.
[James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, pictured in March 2012. AFP Photo/Saul Loeb]