State Secrets Defense Rejected In Anti-NSA lawsuit

The “state secrets defense” offered up by the Obama administration has been rejected by a federal judge hearing a lawsuit that alleges illegal surveillance by the National Security Agency.

The case, Jewel v. NSA, is a lawsuit filed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation on behalf of a group of AT&T customers who claim that Americans’ private electronic data was unconstitutionally collected by the government without a warrant. The state secrets defense is a legal doctrine dating back to the 1950s that allows cases to be tossed out of court “when the government claims litigation threatens national security and might expose state secrets,” Wired explained.

In this instance, the judge determined that the subject matter of the lawsuit does not qualify as a state secret, allowing the case to move forward rather than being dismissed as the Obama administration lawyers wanted. “Given the multiple public disclosures of information regarding the surveillance program, the court does not find that the very subject matter of the suits constitutes a state secret,” US District Judge Jeffrey White asserted.

Reacting to Judge Jeffrey White’s ruling that tossed out the government’s state secrets claim, EFF Legal Director Cindy Cohn had this to say: “The court rightly found that the traditional legal system can determine the legality of the mass, dragnet surveillance of innocent Americans and rejected the government’s invocation of the state secrets privilege to have the case dismissed. Over the last month, we came face-to-face with new details of mass, untargeted collection of phone and Internet records, substantially confirmed by the Director of National Intelligence. Today’s decision sets the stage for finally getting a ruling that can stop the dragnet surveillance and restore Americans’ constitutional rights.”

Even given that the judge has the thrown out the government’s state secrets defense, there is still no certainty that the case — originally filed in 2008 during the Bush administration — will get to a full-blown trial on the merits, however, as Reuters reports: “While U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White in San Francisco did not end the lawsuit on Monday on state secrets grounds, he did narrow the plaintiffs’ claims and raised several issues that may ultimately prevent the case from reaching trial following several years of litigation.”

The judge has set a further hearing date as to whether whether the alleged data mining violated the First and Fourth Amendments.

In June, Edward Snowden, the former Booz Allen contractor, publicly revealed the previously unknown scope of the massive National Security Agency PRISM domestic spying program. The extent of the domestic surveillance program was obviously unknown when this particular lawsuit was originally filed.