Petition the NSA to Subject its Surveillance Program to Public Comment
In a request today to National Security Agency director Keith Alexander and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, the group argues that the NSA’s recently revealed domestic surveillance program is “unlawful” because the agency neglected to request public comments first. A federal appeals court previously ruled that was necessary in a lawsuit involving airport body scanners.
“In simple terms, a line has been crossed,” Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, told CNET. “The agency’s function has been transformed, and we think the public should have an opportunity to say something about that.”
It’s an ambitious—and untested—legal argument. No court appears to have ever ruled that the Administrative Procedure Act, which can require agencies to solicit public comment, has applied to the supersecret intelligence community. The APA explicitly excludes from judicial review, for instance, “military authority exercised in the field in time of war.”
EPIC is relying on a July 2011 decision (PDF) it obtained from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit dealing with installing controversial full-body scanners at airports. The Transportation Security Agency, the court said, was required to obtain comment on a rule that “substantively affects the public.”
This isn’t an empty exercise. While it’s unlikely that a judge will order the NSA to suspend the program pending public approval, the process will put pressure on Washington to subject the NSA to more oversight, and pressure the NSA into more transparency. We’ve used these tactics before. Two decades ago, EPIC launched a similar petition against the Clipper Chip, a process that eventually led to the Clinton administration and the FBI abandoning the effort. And EPIC’s more recent action against TSA full-body scanners is one of the reasons we have privacy safeguards on the millimeter wave scanners they are still using.
The more people who sign this petition, this, the clearer the message it sends to Washington: a message that people care about the privacy of their telephone records, Internet transactions, and online communications. Secret judges should not be allowed to use secret interpretations of secret laws to authorize the NSA to engage in domestic surveillance. Sooner or later, a court is going to recognize that. Until then, the more noise the better.
Add your voice here. It just might work.