Cindy Cohn and Trevor Timm
February 27, 2013
Yesterday, the Supreme Court sadly dismissed the ACLU’s case, Clapper v. Amnesty International, which challenged the FISA Amendments Act (FAA)—the unconstitutional law that allows the government to wiretap Americans communcating with people overseas. Under the FAA, the government can conduct this surveillance without naming individuals and without a traditional probable cause warrant, as the Fourth Amendment requires.
The court didn’t address the constitutionality of the FAA itself, but instead ruled that the plaintiffs—a group of lawyers, journalists, and human rights advocates who regularly communicate with likely “targets” of FAA wiretapping—couldn’t prove the surveillance was “certainly impending,” so therefore didn’t have the “standing” necessary to sue. In other words, since the Americans did not have definitive proof that they were being surveilled under the FAA—a fact the government nearly always keeps secret—they cannot challenge the constitutionality of the statute.
EFF’s Warrantless Wiretapping Case, Jewel v. NSA, Is Not Affected by Clapper
It’s shameful that the courts again have cut off another avenue for accountability regarding the NSA’s warrantless and unconstitutional surveillance activities. But as disappointing as the Clapper decision is, the good news is the decision likely won’t adversely affect our Jewel v. NSA lawsuit, which we argued in district court in December of 2012. Indeed, the Clapper decision makes the Jewel case one of the last remaining hopes for a court ruling on the legality of the warrantless surveillance of Americans, now conducted for over a decade.
The Ninth Circuit has already ruled that the Jewel plaintiffs have standing under settled law. The court’s decision is based on solid ground because we have presented the court with evidence that dragnet warrantless surveillance has already occurred, through testimony and documents from AT&T and NSA whistleblowers. In fact, the court specifically differentiated the two cases in its Jewel opinion: “Jewel has much stronger allegations of concrete and particularized injury than did the plaintiffs in Amnesty International. Whereas they anticipated or projected future government conduct, Jewel’s complaint alleges past incidents of actual government interception of her electronic communications.”
Clapper v. Amnesty’s Catch-22
Nonetheless, the Supreme Court’s requirement in Clapper that a future harm must be “certainly impending” to allow a case to go forward is very troubling, especially in the context of cases involving secret surveillance.
As Justice Stephen Breyer’s dissent points out, future conduct can never be predict anything with 100% certainty, and if certainty was a requirement for standing, then virtually no cases would ever reach conclusion. Justice Breyer runs through dozens of cases where standing has been found for plaintiffs in situations where plaintiffs had a reasonable fear of harm, and in many of those cases, the plaintiffs were much less certain than the lawyers, human rights workers and journalist in Clapper.
Breyer summed absurdity of the “certainly impending” standard by saying, “One can, of course, always imagine some special circumstance that negates a virtual likelihood, no matter how strong. But the same is true about most, if not all, ordinary inferences about future events. Perhaps, despite pouring rain, the streets will remain dry (due to the presence of a special chemical).”
This standard is especially problematic when the harm is illegal surveillance conducted via secret government programs. Unlike physical searches of the home, communications surveillance is by its nature hidden from the people affected, and national security surveillance is rarely made public or used in domestic criminal prosecutions. Thus, under the Supreme Court’s rule, regardless of whether its surveillance was legal or constitutional, the government can deny standing to a victim of illegal surveillance just by never revealing its illegal actions to the person affected. Essentially, one can’t challenge the government’s surveillance unless the government agrees.
Indeed, in arguing that its ruling does not mean that government surveillance under the FAA can never be reviewed by the courts, the Court could only point to situations in which the government intentionally revealed its surveillance.1
Allowing the Executive broad unfettered powers to “turn the Constitution on and off at will,” is exactly what the Supreme Court refused to do in Boumediene v. Bush, but what it appears to have allowed here.
It’s not even clear that the majority even understands the real scope of the FAA. In the opinion’s first sentence, Justice Alito refers to “individuals” that can be warrantlessly surveilled, but as we’ve explained many times, and the dissent notes, one of the most odious parts of the law is that it allows the government to get one court order for groups or categories of people—potentially thousands of people can be affected at a time.
The Shrinking Ranks of Warrantless Wiretapping Cases
This is the second ruling in the past year in which the government has convinced the court to dismiss challenges to the NSA warrantless wiretapping program on technical grounds, when there is ample evidence of wrongdoing. In 2012, the Ninth Circuit reluctantly dismissed the Al-Haramain case on “sovereign immunity” grounds despite a lower court ruling the government had violated the Fourth Amendment. The court reasoned that because of a glitch in the language of FISA statute, the plaintiffs had to sue individuals in the government in their personal capacities and couldn’t sue government agencies themselves or government officials in their official capacities.
We look forward to the district court in Jewel v. NSA determining that our case can move forward, and that the government can, once and for all, be held to account for the NSA’s unlawful and unconstitutional warrantless wiretapping program.