Saturday, April 11, 2009
Government opts for secrecy in wiretap suit
The Obama administration is again invoking government secrecy in defending the Bush administration's wiretapping program, this time against a lawsuit by AT&T customers who claim federal agents illegally intercepted their phone calls and gained access to their records.
Disclosure of the information sought by the customers, "which concerns how the United States seeks to detect and prevent terrorist attacks, would cause exceptionally grave harm to national security," Justice Department lawyers said in papers filed Friday in San Francisco.
Kevin Bankston of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a lawyer for the customers, said Monday the filing was disappointing in light of the Obama presidential campaign's "unceasing criticism of Bush-era secrecy and promise for more transparency."...
New and worse secrecy and immunity claims from the Obama DOJ
...Taking them at their word, EFF -- which was the lead counsel in the lawsuits against the telecoms -- thereafter filed suit, in October, 2008, against the Bush administration and various Bush officials for illegally spying on the communications of Americans. They were seeking to make good on the promise made by Congressional Democrats: namely, that even though lawsuits against telecoms for illegal spying will not be allowed any longer, government officials who broke the law can still be held accountable.
But late Friday afternoon, the Obama DOJ filed the government's first response to EFF's lawsuit (.pdf), the first of its kind to seek damages against government officials under FISA, the Wiretap Act and other statutes, arising out of Bush's NSA program. But the Obama DOJ demanded dismissal of the entire lawsuit based on (1) its Bush-mimicking claim that the "state secrets" privilege bars any lawsuits against the Bush administration for illegal spying, and (2) a brand new "sovereign immunity" claim of breathtaking scope -- never before advanced even by the Bush administration -- that the Patriot Act bars any lawsuits of any kind for illegal government surveillance unless there is "willful disclosure" of the illegally intercepted communications.
In other words, beyond even the outrageously broad "state secrets" privilege invented by the Bush administration and now embraced fully by the Obama administration, the Obama DOJ has now invented a brand new claim of government immunity, one which literally asserts that the U.S. Government is free to intercept all of your communications (calls, emails and the like) and -- even if what they're doing is blatantly illegal and they know it's illegal -- you are barred from suing them unless they "willfully disclose" to the public what they have learned....
...Equally difficult to overstate is how identical the Obama DOJ now is to the Bush DOJ when it comes to its claims of executive secrecy -- not merely in substance but also tone and rhetoric (at least in the area of secrecy; there are still important differences -- no sweeping Article II lawbreaking powers and the like -- which shouldn't be overlooked). I defy anyone to read the Obama DOJ's brief here and identify even a single difference between what it says and what the Bush DOJ routinely said in the era of Cheney/Addington (other than the fact that Bush used to rely on secret claims of national security harm from Michael McConnell whereas Obama relies on secret claims filed by Dennis Blair). Even for those most cynical about what Obama was likely to do or not do in the civil liberties realm, reading this brief from the Obama DOJ is so striking -- and more than a little depressing -- given how indistinguishable it is from everything that poured out of the Bush DOJ regarding secrecy powers in order to evade all legal accountability...