Should NSA Be Immune from Constitutional Scrutiny?

Today the Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit issued a ruling in NSA v. Klayman that has almost no practical effect, but is a potent illustration of how excessive secrecy and stringent standing requirements effectively immunize intelligence programs from meaningful, adversarial constitutional review.

Contrary to some breathless headlines, today’s opinion does not “uphold” the NSA’s illicit bulk collection of telephone records—which, thanks to the recent passage of the USA Freedom Act, must end by November in any event. Rather, the court overturned an injunction that only ever applied specifically to the phone records of the plaintiffs. And they did so, not because the judges found the program substantially lawful, but because the plaintiff could not specifically prove that his telephone records had been swept into the database, even though the ultimate aim of the program was to collect nearly all such records.

Together with other similar thwarted challenges to mass government surveillance—most notably the Supreme Court case Clapper v. Amnesty International—the decision sends the disturbing signal that mass scale surveillance of millions of innocent people by our intelligence agencies is, for all practical purposes, immune from meaningful constitutional scrutiny. Even when we know about a mass surveillance program, as in the case of NSA’s bulk telephony program, stringent standing rules raise an impossibly high barrier to legal challenges. Perversely, the only people with a realistic chance of challenging such programs in court are actual terrorists who the government chooses to prosecute. The vast, innocent majority of people affected by bulk surveillance—those with the strongest claim that their rights have been violated—are effectively barred from ever having those rights vindicated in court.

Given the routine refusal of courts to step in to protect our Fourth Amendment rights, it is fortunate that Congress has already acted to bring this intrusive and ineffective program to a halt.