Tuesday’s decision by the Supreme Court in Clapper vs Amnesty Int’l reflects judicial formalism at its worst. The decision abandons fundamental rights and the courts’ constitutional mandate, while placing government agencies above the law, so long as they commit their abuses in secret.
Clapper is a constitutional travesty of the highest order, reflecting the erosion of privacy, judicial independence, and constitutional government all at once. By allowing executive secrecy to insulate violations from review, five Justices of the Supreme Court have effectively killed what shreds once remained of the Fourth Amendment.
Every American should be gravely concerned, and anyone who still considers America “the land of the free” should carefully reconsider their assumptions. Several elements of the decision are disturbing, especially when viewed in a broader context beyond the case itself.
Most obviously disappointing is the result of the ruling, not only for the plaintiffs, but also anyone who uses the phone system or Internet.
A scandal in plain sight
The Clapper saga started with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which was first passed in the 1970s to restrict domestic spying by government agencies. It was prompted by decades of abuses by the FBI, CIA, and other agencies that Congress investigated and found conducting “a sophisticated vigilante operation aimed squarely at suppressing the legitimate exercise of First Amendment rights of speech and association,” including a documented government campaign to “neutralize” Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders.
In 2002, the Bush administration authorized the National Security Agency (the NSA) to begin a secret warrantless wiretapping program in clear violation of the FISA law. It remained secret, at one point prompting a dramatic intra-executive showdown and threats of a mass resignation by Justice Department officials under the Bush administration, until the New York Times exposed the program in late 2005.
Aside from generating an earthquake across Washington, the first results of the Times‘ expose included government threats to prosecute the journalists. Their only “crime” was exposing the public to an issue that should never have been secret in the first place. While prosecutors thankfully opted not to prosecute Lichtblau & Risen, others continued to face prosecution for pursuing transparency in the public interest.
In the middle of the 2008 presidential election race, Congress amended FISA to permit what the original statute had been passed to prohibit. Rather than require the agency to comply with the long-standing law, however, Congress instead watered down the law to allow the agency’s abuses to continue.
Congress’ 2008 amendments to FISA doomed oversight. As the dissenting Justices in Clapper observed, the 2008 amendments allow NSA monitoring not only of agents of a foreign power, but also law-abiding Americans. Congress in 2008 also removed FISA’s original requirement for the NSA to identify specific targets and locations for surveillance, enabling the agency to conduct bulk collection, or dragnet surveillance. Finally, the 2008 amendments subsidized corporate crime, extending a corporate subsidy in the form of immunity from lawsuits alleging privacy violations, ensuring that telecommunications companies could continue facilitating unconstitutional surveillance without fearing lawsuits from a justifiably hostile public.
That was the context in which a group of activists, journalists, and lawyers among the most likely suspects for NSA surveillance filed suit.