FILE – In this file image made from video released by WikiLeaks on Oct. 11, 2013, former National Security Agency systems analyst Edward Snowden speaks in Moscow. Faced with congressional inaction to curtail the NSA?s bulk collection of Americans? telephone records, civil liberties groups are looking to cases already in the courts as a quicker way to clarify just what surveillance powers the government should have. Three appeals courts are hearing challenges to the National Security Agency phone records program, creating the potential for an eventual Supreme Court review. Judges in lower courts are grappling with the admissibility of evidence gained through the NSA?s warrantless surveillance. The flurry of activity follows revelations last year by former contractor Edward Snowden of once-secret intelligence collection programs. (AP Photo, File)(The Associated Press)
WASHINGTON While Congress mulls how to curtail the NSA’s collection of Americans’ telephone records, impatient civil liberties groups are looking to legal challenges already underway in the courts to limit government surveillance powers.
Three appeals courts are hearing lawsuits against the bulk phone records program, creating the potential for an eventual Supreme Court review. Judges in lower courts, meanwhile, are grappling with the admissibility of evidence gained through the NSA’s warrantless surveillance.
Advocates say the flurry of activity, which follows revelations last year by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden of once-secret intelligence programs, show how a post-9/11 surveillance debate once primarily hashed out among lawmakers in secret is being increasingly aired in open court not only in New York and Washington but in places like Idaho and Colorado.
“The thing that is different about the debate right now is that the courts are much more of a factor in it,” said Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union. Before the Snowden disclosures, he said, courts were generally relegated to the sidelines of the discussion. Now, judges are poised to make major decisions on at least some of the matters in coming months.
Though it’s unclear whether the Supreme Court will weigh in, the cases are proceeding at a time when the justices appear increasingly comfortable with digital privacy matters including GPS tracking of cars and police searches of cellphones.
The cases “come at a critical turning point for the Supreme Court when it comes to expectations of privacy and digital information,” said American University law professor Stephen Vladeck.
Revelations that the government was collecting phone records of millions of Americans who were not suspected of crimes forced a rethinking of the practice, and President Barack Obama has called for it to end.
Since then, the House has passed legislation that civil libertarians say did not go far enough. In the Senate, Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy, the Judiciary Committee chairman, is seeking a vote on a stricter measure to ban bulk collection, and it has bipartisan backing and support from the White House.
As Congress considers the matter, the federal judiciary has produced divided opinions.