WASHINGTON – The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit Tuesday challenging the constitutionality of the U.S. government’s surveillance program that collects from U.S. phone companies the call records of tens of millions of Americans.
It is the first substantive lawsuit following reports last week detailing two sweeping surveillance programs run by the National Security Agency under laws authorized by Congress after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The ACLU suit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, challenges the legality of the spy agency’s collection of customer “metadata,” including phone numbers dialed and the length of calls. The lawsuit is asking the court to force the government to end the program and purge any records it has collected.
According to a classified court order to Verizon Business Network Services, published by The Guardian, the NSA has directed the company to turn over “all call detail records” of customers under Section 215 of the Patriot Act.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper stressed last week that the NSA does not receive phone call content or a subscriber’s identity under the program. He also said that before the data can be searched, the NSA must have “reasonable suspicion, based on specific facts, that the particular basis for the query is associated with a foreign terrorist organization.”
But the ACLU challenged that modest characterization, saying in its lawsuit that the program’s scope is “akin to snatching every American’s address book — with annotations detailing whom we spoke to, when we talked, for how long and from where.”
The ACLU asserts it has standing to sue the government over the program because it is a Verizon customer, overcoming a hurdle that has blocked previous attempts to challenge secret programs.
The ACLU also contends the NSA’s surveillance will have a “chilling effect” on whistle-blowers who would otherwise contact the group for help.