Did the NSA Violate the Constitution?

The ACLU is suing the NSA, contending that its secret surveillance programs violates Americans' constitutional rights.

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The House is considering legislation that would reform the way the National Security Agency performs surveillance on citizens.

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The American Civil Liberties Union Tuesday filed a lawsuit against the National Security Agency, claiming its surveillance of Americans' phone calls is unconstitutional. The suit said the data collection violates the rights of free speech, association and privacy.

Publicly revealed for the first time last week, the NSA's secret program monitoring Verizon phone records alarmed civil libertarians, who say the government has no such authority. With the possession of a court order, the government has been collecting metadata from phone calls placed in its network for the last three months. This includes details of both parties on a call, how long they spoke, how often and possibly where they were located.

[ See a Collection of Political Cartoons on the NSA.]

The administration maintains that the program is legal under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, but the ACLU – itself a Verizon customer – says that does not grant the government the constitutional authority for the phone call monitoring program. It calls the surveillance a "dragnet," and says it violates both the First and Fourth Amendments. The organization explains why Section 215 isn't appropriate legal justification:

[T]he ACLU's complaint charges that the executive branch's use of Section 215 violates the plain language of the statute itself. The statute requires that records seized under its authority be "relevant" to an authorized foreign-intelligence or terrorism investigation. But while that language imposes a real limitation on when the government can use Section 215, the [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court] order covering all [Verizon Business Network Services] customers demonstrates that this "relevance" restraint is shockingly inadequate. Similarly, the FISC order shows that the government – with the FISC's secret approval – is acquiring future records of telephone subscribers based on the same "relevance" requirement, even though the statute uses "words that clearly show it was only meant to cover "tangible things" already in existence.

[ Read the U.S. News Debate: Should Americans Be Worried About the National Security Ageny's Data Collection?]

The Justice Department has declined to comment, but the lawsuit could eventually make its way to the Supreme Court. In the past, other such suits addressing national security policies have been dismissed without rulings, usually due do the top secret content of the litigation. But Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper declassified the existence of the NSA surveillance program, opening up the possibility of a public dialogue and court proceedings.  

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