San Francisco Chronicle
Civil liberties advocates and peace groups aren't the only ones intimidated by the government sweep of phone records, privacy-rights lawyers have told a Bay Area federal judge. Gun owners and manufacturers are, too.
Since the revelations this summer that the National Security Agency is collecting records of all telephone calls in the United States, the Calguns Foundation has seen a decline in phone messages from members, who are already "distrustful of government or of having any record of their status as gun owners," Gene Hoffman Jr., chairman of the advocacy organization, said in a court declaration.
"Those who do call us leave fewer details in their voice mails," he said.
Phone calls to Franklin Armory in Nevada have dropped by more than 70 percent, said Jay Jacobson, the gun manufacturing company's president. "The simple act of contacting us would identify the caller as a likely gun owner," he said.
The declarations were among 22 submitted last week by the Electronic Frontier Foundation in support of its lawsuit, one of three in the nation's courts challenging the NSA records haul. U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White is scheduled to consider arguments in Oakland in April that the program violates federal law and the constitutional right of freedom of association.
Another hearing is scheduled Nov. 22 in New York on a suit by the American Civil Liberties Union that attacks the NSA program as a violation of constitutional limits on searches and seizures. Supporters of the suit include the National Rifle Association and Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., lead congressional author of the 2001 Patriot Act, which expanded government surveillance powers.
The U.S. Supreme Court may decide as early as next week whether to take up a challenge to the NSA program by the Electronic Privacy Information Center, which is seeking to bypass lower courts. Its lawyers argue that secret federal courts established in 1978 to oversee government surveillance of foreign terrorism have rubber-stamped the NSA's sweep of domestic phone data.
The suits are the first test of the legality of the phone records program that was revealed in June when Edward Snowden, former computer analyst for an NSA contractor, disclosed that the agency was collecting domestic call records from Verizon.
The NSA then confirmed that it had been gathering records of all domestic phone calls since 2001. Since 2006, the agency has obtained periodic warrants for phone records from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which meets in secret and hears arguments only from the government.
The documents contain only the numbers that were called and the time and duration of each call. The NSA says it keeps the data in storage and examines an individual customer's records only if it has evidence that the caller has connections to foreign terrorism.
Government lawyers say the universal collection of Americans' telephone records is legal under provisions of the Patriot Act allowing government seizure of documents relevant to an authorized investigation of international terrorism.
But privacy-rights lawyers say both the Patriot Act and the 1978 law that established the secret court were supposed to authorize court-approved surveillance of Americans' contacts with suspected foreign terrorists and not of ordinary domestic calls.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation, whose clients in the Bay Area suit include civil rights activists, churches, environmentalists, gun groups and marijuana advocates, said the effect on all of them has been chilling.
Each of those groups "has lost the ability to assure its members, supporters and constituents that the fact of the telephonic communications between them will be kept confidential," their lawyers said in last week's filing to White.
In sworn declarations, leaders of the organizations in the foundation's lawsuit said disclosure of the NSA program has made private citizens reluctant to contact groups involved in social or political issues, and less willing to speak candidly when they call.
"Our neighbors now fear that a simple contact with the church inquiring about a church program will bring scrutiny upon other aspects of their lives," said the Rev. Rick Hoyt of the First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles. The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws told the court that calls to its California hot line have declined substantially. The National Lawyers Guild, which often sues the government, said it has cut back on phone contacts with clients and now tries to meet with them in person. Media Alliance, an Oakland organization that advocates for press freedom, said several news organizations have dropped out.
Jennifer Nimer, Ohio legal director of the Council on Islamic-American Relations, said the advocacy group has become reluctant to contact members by phone. "The very act of communicating by telephone," she said, "increases the chances of government scrutiny."