The Electronic Frontier Foundation has sued the Department of Justice, demanding the release of records related to court orders authorizing electronic surveillance.
The EFF filed a lawsuit Tuesday seeking information on changes to the National Security Agency's surveillance program. The program, which the federal government maintains targets communications involving at least one suspected terrorist, was secret until the New York Times reported on it in December 2005.
The government acknowledged that it was conducting surveillance without warrants from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and argued that presidential powers and recent legislation authorized the practice. After defending against allegations that the practice was illegal, U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales announced last month that the government changed its practices and would seek court approval to monitor communications.
EFF used the Freedom of Information Act in an attempt to obtain records showing the court's approval, but the Department of Justice didn't respond to a written request. EFF is seeking immediate release of orders allowing the government to monitor communications and any rules or guidelines associated with the orders. White House Press Secretary Tony Snow has made public comments that indicate the court issued guidelines or parameters that have allowed the government to continue surveillance with court approval.
EFF refers to those statements in its filing. It's not alone in seeking details about the guidelines. News reporters who have been covering the issue have also pressed to find out the parameters of ongoing surveillance.
The White House, Gonzales, and federal agencies have maintained that terrorists could learn too much about the government's capabilities if the government's methods were disclosed. They have argued that national security would be compromised if information about the surveillance program were released.
Although several groups and individuals have sued the government over the secret surveillance, EFF's suit is different since it seeks information about the program since the administration has claimed court approval.
In a statement announcing the lawsuit, EFF senior counsel David Sobel said that Americans have the right to know the government's basic guidelines for electronic surveillance of their personal communications. The government has claimed that ordinary Americans haven't been targeted and that only communications involving suspected terrorists have been intercepted.
Sobel said during a brief interview Tuesday that he's optimistic EFF will obtain the records because the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act requires modifications to its rules and procedures to be declassified and made available to congressional committees. Even if the government successfully argues that the material is highly classified, the lawsuit is likely to make officials account for the documents they have, which would make public more information than has been released up to this point, he said.
The lawsuit is one of dozens filed by EFF as part of a campaign to "hold government accountable."