Secret Spying and the Supreme Court’s Constitutional Catch-22

The memory of the abuses perpetrated by colonial officials wielding “general warrants” inspired the framers of our Constitution’s Fourth Amendment to constrain the government’s power to invade citizens’ privacy. With today’s 5-4 ruling in Clapper v. Amnesty International, the Supreme Court has announced that the modern equivalent of those general warrants—dragnet surveillance “authorizations” under the FISA Amendments Act—will be effectively immune from Fourth Amendment challenge.

The FAA permits the government to secretly vacuum up Americans’ international communications on a massive scale, without any individualized suspicion—and at least some of that surveillance has already been determined to have violated the constitution by a secret intelligence court. Yet today’s majority has all but guaranteed no court will be able to review the constitutionality of the law as a whole by imposing a perverse Catch-22: Even citizens at the highest risk of being wiretapped may not bring a challenge without proof they’re in the government’s vast database. The only problem is the government is never required to reveal who has been spied on.

In essence, the Court has said that even if the law is unconstitutional, even if it has violated the Fourth Amendment rights of thousands of Americans, there’s no realistic way to get a court to say so.

Precisely when secrecy shields the government from public political accountability, the Clapper ruling announces, the Constitution is powerless to protect us as well.

I’ll have a more detailed analysis of the ruling (and dissent) tomorrow.