ACLU Sues U.S. Government Over Phone Records ‘Dragnet’

The U.S. government violated the privacy and free speech of civilians with its “dragnet acquisition” of phone records under a National Security Agency program, the American Civil Liberties Union said in a lawsuit.

The complaint is one of the first to take aim at a program, administered under the anti-terror Patriot Act, to collect the telephone records of all Verizon Communications Inc. customers and turn them over to the NSA. After news organizations disclosed the program, the Obama administration confirmed last week that a secret court had approved the collection.

“The practice is akin to snatching every American’s address book —- with annotations detailing whom we spoke to, when we talked, for how long, and from where,” the ACLU said in the complaint filed yesterday in federal court in Manhattan.

The ACLU is a customer of Verizon Business Network Services, which was the recipient of the secret court’s order published by the Guardian newspaper last week, the organization said yesterday in a statement. The order required the company to “turn over on an ongoing daily basis phone call details” such as who calls are placed to and from, and when those calls are made, the group said.

“The fact that the government is collecting this information is likely to have a chilling effect on people who would otherwise contact” the ACLU, the organization said in the complaint.

Eric Schultz, a spokesman for the White House, and Nanda Chitre, a Justice Department spokeswoman, said they had no comment on the lawsuit.

Records Collection

James Clapper, director of national intelligence and a defendant named in the lawsuit, said June 7 that the records collection is lawful and aimed at thwarting terrorism. The phone records program, and another to collect Internet data, are authorized under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, he said.

Intelligence agencies are authorized by Congress to get broad electronic surveillance orders from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

The ACLU alleges the records collection exceeds the limits set by the Patriot Act, a law passed after the 2001 terrorist attacks that expanded the government’s surveillance and data collection efforts to combat terrorism.

A 2008 ACLU lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the FISA Amendments Act, which authorized warrantless wiretapping, was dismissed 5-4 by the U.S. Supreme Court in February on grounds that the plaintiffs couldn’t prove they had been monitored, the group said in a statement.

The ACLU seeks a court order declaring the tracking program unconstitutional and forcing the government to purge all call records collected.

The case is American Civil Liberties Union v. Clapper, 13-cv-03994, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).

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