Everyone should know just how much the US government lied to defend the NSA.
A web of deception has finally been untangled: the Justice Department got the US supreme court to dismiss a case that could have curtailed the NSA’s dragnet. Why?
If you blinked this week, you might have missed the news: two Senators accused the Justice Department of lying about NSA warrantless surveillance to the US supreme court last year, and those falsehoods all but ensured that mass spying on Americans would continue. But hardly anyone seems to care – least of all those who lied and who should have already come forward with the truth.
Here’s what happened: just before Edward Snowden became a household name, the ACLU argued before the supreme court that the Fisa Amendments Act – one of the two main laws used by the NSA to conduct mass surveillance – was unconstitutional.
In a sharply divided opinion, the supreme court ruled, 5-4, that the case should be dismissed because the plaintiffs didn’t have “standing” – in other words, that the ACLU couldn’t prove with near-certainty that their clients, which included journalists and human rights advocates, were targets of surveillance, so they couldn’t challenge the law. As the New York Times noted this week, the court relied on two claims by the Justice Department to support their ruling: 1) that the NSA would only get the content of Americans’ communications without a warrant when they are targeting a foreigner abroad for surveillance, and 2) that the Justice Department would notify criminal defendants who have been spied on under the Fisa Amendments Act, so there exists some way to challenge the law in court.
It turns out that neither of those statements were true – but it took Snowden’s historic whistleblowing to prove it.
One of the most explosive Snowden revelations exposed a then-secret technique known as “about” surveillance. As the New York Times first reported, the NSA “is searching the contents of vast amounts of Americans’ e-mail and text communications into and out of the country, hunting for people who mention information about foreigners under surveillance.” In other words, the NSA doesn’t just target a contact overseas – it sweeps up everyone’s international communications into a dragnet and searches them for keywords.
The Snowden leaks also pushed the Justice Department to admit – contrary to what it told the court – that the government hadn’t been notifying any defendants they were being charged based on NSA surveillance, making it actually impossible for anyone to prove they had standing to challenge the Fisa Amendments Act as unconstitutional.
It’s unclear how much Solicitor General Donald Verrilli knew when he told the government’s lies – twice – to the justices of the supreme court. Reports suggest that he was livid when he found out that his national security staff at the Justice Department misled him about whether they were notifying defendants in criminal trials of surveillance. And we don’t know if he knew about the “about” surveillance that might well have given the ACLU standing in the case. But we do know other Justice Department officials knew about both things, and they have let both lies stand without correcting the record.