We had hoped this would go differently.
Friday evening, in a motion to dismiss Jewel v. NSA, EFF's litigation against the National Security Agency for the warrantless wiretapping of countless Americans, the Obama Administration made two deeply troubling arguments.
First, they argued, exactly as the Bush Administration did on countless occasions, that the state secrets privilege requires the court to dismiss the issue out of hand. They argue that simply allowing the case to continue "would cause exceptionally grave harm to national security." As in the past, this is a blatant ploy to dismiss the litigation without allowing the courts to consider the evidence.
It's an especially disappointing argument to hear from the Obama Administration. As a candidate, Senator Obama lamented that the Bush Administration "invoked a legal tool known as the 'state secrets' privilege more than any other previous administration to get cases thrown out of civil court." He was right then, and we're dismayed that he and his team seem to have forgotten.
Sad as that is, it's the Department Of Justice's second argument that is the most pernicious. The DOJ claims that the U.S. Government is completely immune from litigation for illegal spying — that the Government can never be sued for surveillance that violates federal privacy statutes.
This is a radical assertion that is utterly unprecedented. No one — not the White House, not the Justice Department, not any member of Congress, and not the Bush Administration — has ever interpreted the law this way.
Previously, the Bush Administration has argued that the U.S. possesses "sovereign immunity" from suit for conducting electronic surveillance that violates the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). However, FISA is only one of several laws that restrict the government's ability to wiretap. The Obama Administration goes two steps further than Bush did, and claims that the US PATRIOT Act also renders the U.S. immune from suit under the two remaining key federal surveillance laws: the Wiretap Act and the Stored Communications Act. Essentially, the Obama Adminstration has claimed that the government cannot be held accountable for illegal surveillance under any federal statutes.
Again, the gulf between Candidate Obama and President Obama is striking. As a candidate, Obama ran promising a new era of government transparency and accountability, an end to the Bush DOJ's radical theories of executive power, and reform of the PATRIOT Act. But, this week, Obama's own Department Of Justice has argued that, under the PATRIOT Act, the government shall be entirely unaccountable for surveilling Americans in violation of its own laws.
This isn't change we can believe in. This is change for the worse.
For further reading, we suggest Salon.com's Glenn Greenwald and The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder.