Lawsuit claims NSA spying on Americans

The privacy watchdog group Electronic Privacy Information Center today filed a lawsuit in federal court that aims to force the National Security Agency to release sensitive documents thought to contain evidence of surveillance operations against U.S. citizens.

EPIC wants to obtain documents recently denied to Congress by NSA's General Counsel on the grounds of attorney/client privilege. NSA also has failed to reply to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by EPIC to obtain the documents.

The lawsuit centers on documents that are said to detail the operations of the so-called Echelon global surveillance network. Details surrounding Echelon came to light last year when the European Union launched a full-scale investigation into privacy abuses against European citizens by the NSA ["European Union may investigate U.S. global spy computer network," fcw.com, Nov. 17, 1998].

EPIC director Marc Rotenberg said in a statement released to the press, "The charter of the National Security Agency does not authorize domestic intelligence-gathering. Yet we have reason to believe that the NSA is engaged in the indiscriminate acquisition and interception of domestic communications taking place over the Internet."

A spokesperson for the agency said, "NSA operates in strict accordance with U.S. laws and regulations in protecting the privacy rights of U.S. persons. Its activities are conducted with the highest constitutional, legal and ethical standards."

Echelon, a Cold War-vintage global spy system, is believed to consist of a worldwide network of clandestine listening posts capable of intercepting electronic communications such as e-mail, telephone conversations, faxes, satellite transmissions, microwave links and fiber-optic communications traffic.

EPIC is planning a major study of the Echelon network to be published next year that looks at the operations of signals intelligence agencies around the world, such as the NSA.

"We expect that Congress will hold hearings on this early next year and we plan to pursue our case very aggressively," Rotenberg told FCW. "If the NSA is intercepting Internet communications of U.S. citizens—and we believe they are—then it is a critical question of Constitutional government to determine whether they are acting within the law or outside of it."

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