The American Civil Liberties Union filed a broad-based challenge in federal court in Manhattan Tuesday to the National Security Agency's secret collection of the phone records of most Americans, calling the just-revealed program a "dragnet" that violates privacy rights and the freedom of speech and association.
"The practice is akin to snatching every Americans' address book -- with annotations detailing whom we spoke to, when we talked, for how long, and from where," the lawsuit said. "It gives the government a comprehensive record of our associations and public movements, revealing a wealth of detail about our familial, political, professional, religious and intimate associations."
The suit came in the wake of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden's leak last week of a "top secret" order issued to Verizon Business Network Services to turn over all phone records for a three-month period to the NSA.
That led the government to confirm for the first time that it was broadly seizing and storing phone records to aid in the fight against terrorism, provoking a charged debate over secrecy, privacy and security.
Past suits over government data collection have floundered. The Justice Department has typically argued that cases should be dismissed because they would reveal "state secrets," or because the ACLU and other groups couldn't show that they were targets who had "standing" to sue. But the ACLU, by happenstance, is a Verizon Business customer, and said it didn't expect standing to be a problem this time.
The phone collection program operates under a provision of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that originally authorized warrants for "business records" of targeted individuals, but was amended by Congress in 2006 to allow a special national security court to authorize collection of records "relevant" to investigations designed to "protect against international terrorism."
Unbeknownst to the public, so-called "metadata" on everyone's calls have been collected and stored for seven years under that authority, the ACLU said. The group said the program had a chilling effect on its ability to communicate with whistle-blowers and others seeking help, and it asked for the collection to stop and all records to be destroyed.
"This dragnet program is surely one of the largest surveillance efforts ever launched by a democratic government against its own citizens," said ACLU legal official Jameel Jaffer.
Obama administration officials have said they briefed Congress on the program and used the data to try to track terrorists' connections, but don't listen in on ordinary people's calls. They say the program has helped disrupt plots but haven't provided details. The Justice Department had no immediate comment on the suit.
Snowden is a former employee of Booz Allen Hamilton Holding Corp., a government contractor that said Tuesday that Snowden was fired Monday.