U.S. Can’t Delay NSA Surveillance Suit Due to Shutdown

The Obama administration must respond next month to allegations that the National Security Agency surveillance program is unconstitutional after a judge refused a U.S. request to postpone a lawsuit because of the federal shutdown.

U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White in San Francisco yesterday denied the Justice Department’s motion to delay deadlines for it to respond to a case challenging the surveillance program. A Nov. 1 deadline to submit a case management statement, a Nov. 8 hearing and a Nov. 12 deadline for responding to the complaint remain in place, White said in an order without giving a reason.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation alleged in a lawsuit filed July 16 that the intelligence program partly disclosed by ex-government security contractor Edward Snowden is unconstitutional and illegally erodes free speech rights of religious, environmental and human rights groups.

Marcia Berman, senior trial counsel at the Justice Department, asked the judge to put the case on hold, saying employees of the agency and the NSA “are prohibited from working, even on a voluntary basis, except in very limited circumstances” such as emergencies involving the safety of human lives, according to a court filing.

EFF, a San Francisco-based privacy rights group, said the government continues the bulk collection of telephone calling records of millions of Americans and a secret Washington-based court that handles NSA surveillance requests remains open despite the lack of appropriations.

Bulk Collection

An order to continue the bulk collection is set to expire on or about Oct. 17 and the Justice Department continues to prepare an application to renew the order, EFF attorneys said in court filings, citing a Sept. 30 Justice Department contingency plan.

“If it is essential that the spying continue despite the lack of appropriations, then it is equally essential that the question of whether the spying is lawful also go forward,” Richard Wiebe, an EFF attorney, said in a court filing objecting to the postponement. “The rule of law, and the protection of the civil liberties guaranteed by the Constitution, are every bit as essential to the preservation of American democracy as are the NSA’s spying activities.”

The case is First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles v. National Security Agency, 13-cv-03287, U.S. District Court, Northern District of California (San Francisco).

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