Is the NSA Above the Law?

As I report today in Ars Technica, a federal judge in California allowed continued investigations by five state regulators into allegations that AT&T has been collaborating with the National Security Agency in a massive warrantless wiretapping program.

However, the judge, Vaughn R. Walker, declined to rule on the government’s central argument, that the investigation could run afoul of the state secret privilege. On that issue, Judge Walker deferred to the Ninth Circuit, which is currently considering the case of Hepting v. AT&T, a class-action lawsuit alleging that AT&T has violated its customers’ rights by participating in the NSA program. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which is representing the plaintiffs in the case, has secured a sworn statement from a former AT&T employee alleging that the company has allowed the NSA to build a secret facility inside its San Francisco office and diverted massive amounts of Internet and voice traffic through the room to allow the NSA to use the information as it wishes.

I’m not an expert on the legal minutia of the state secrets privilege, but the Bush administration is making what strikes me as an incredible claim: that the NSA program’s very existence (or non-existence) is a state secret, that it would be impossible to litigate such a case without revealing sensitive information about how such a program worked, and that therefore any case related to such a program must be dismissed immediately, before it reaches trial or even discovery.

It’s hard to see how this position can be reconciled with the rule of law. Americans have rights under the Fourth Amendment and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act against indiscriminate domestic surveillance. But if the government can defeat all legal challenges to a program merely by designating it a state secret, it’s hard to see how those rights can ever be vindicated.

I suppose if the Bush administration can opt out of habeus corpus merely by declaring someone an enemy combatant, they can opt out of the Fourth Amendment by declaring their surveillance activities to be state secrets.