Commentary Magazine


NSA, Metadata, and the Constitution

If any evidence were needed that judicial activism is not merely a problem of the left, look at what a couple of conservative judicial activists pulled off yesterday in a case involving one of our most important national security safeguards–the NSA’s monitoring of terrorist communications.

Larry Klayman is a professional plaintiff who has filed too many cases to count. (He has even gone to court against the organization he founded and then left, Judicial Watch.) He first came to public attention pursuing various far-fetched allegations against the Clintons; more recently he has been pursuing the conspiratorial “birther” claim that President Obama should be thrown out of office because he supposedly wasn’t born in this country. He has also been quoted as saying that conservatives should demand “that this president leave town, to get up, to put the Quran down, to get up off his knees, and to figuratively come out with his hands up.”

Klayman’s latest cause is the NSA’s collection of “metadata” which has been irresponsibly revealed by Edward Snowden. This is the NSA program that collects information on which telephone numbers are in contact with each other so that links among terrorist plotters can be detected. Mind you, the NSA can’t actually listen in to the content of these communications without a court order. It can only search for patterns so that if an al-Qaeda mastermind abroad calls someone in the United States, that phone number can be tagged for further investigation. This is considerably less intrusive than the use of surveillance cameras in public places by organizations such as the New York Police Department or Macy’s which can monitor individuals’ movements–and, more to the point, it’s a lot less intrusive than the kind of data that big companies such as Amazon and Google compile on their customers, which includes their Internet browsing habits.

Yet Klayman did not choose to sue the NYPD or Google–at least not that I know of. (Given his litigious nature–he doesn’t seem to have a job other than filing suits–such cases may well be pending.) He chose to sue the NSA over its collection of metadata, claiming that the NSA was infringing on his personal liberties by collecting his metadata–as if Larry Klayman were so important a personage that the NSA was actually going to devote time and resources to monitoring him.

Such suits are almost as common as spam emails and about as significant. The difference in this case is that a federal judge, Richard J. Leon of Federal District Court for the District of Columbia, chose to grant Klayman an injunction against the NSA. Sort of. Leon actually stayed his own injunction in a moment of self-awareness or perhaps self-protection–because if he hadn’t done so, an appeals court undoubtedly would have.

Leon must know that the odds of his ruling being upheld on review are slim to none. He claims that the NSA is violating the Fourth Amendment with its “almost Orwellian” program and adds: “I cannot imagine a more ‘indiscriminate’ and ‘arbitrary invasion’ than this systematic and high-tech collection and retention of personal data on virtually every single citizen for purposes of querying it and analyzing it without judicial approval.”

In reality, the NSA program has been fully authorized by the USA Patriot Act and reviewed on a regular basis by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court whose members are picked by the chief justice of the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court has previously ruled (in Smith v. Maryland, a 1979 case) that individuals have no expectation of privacy in metadata, and judicial review is built into the process to make sure that the NSA abides by the rules. So is congressional review. The appropriate committees of Congress have been kept fully informed of what NSA has been up to, and members with oversight of intelligence activities have voiced support for these efforts. (See this Slate article for a list of supportive comments from members of the House and Senate.)

The practical significance of Leon’s ruling is apt to be slight. The future of the NSA programs is going to be decided above his pay grade–by the president, Congress, and the Supreme Court, not by a lone federal district judge. This will, however, no doubt fuel Klayman’s fund-raising (in typically bombastic fashion he is claiming this is the “biggest ruling in the history of government litigation”) and allow him to file ever more suits.

But while the legal significance of Leon’s order is not great, it is symbolic of how some libertarians of the right have joined with libertarians of the left to try to eviscerate some of the most effective defenses we have against terrorist attacks. So far the center has held–the president and leaders of Congress have recognized that the NSA’s programs are too important to become a partisan football. But with a presidential review group set to submit a call for greater restrictions on NSA activities, there is cause for concern that the center may not hold much longer. If so, the gain in our civil liberties will be slight to nonexistent (who aside from Larry Klayman stays up nights worrying about whether the NSA is collecting metadata on our calls?), while the harm to our national security will be palpable.

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