NEW YORK — A new report by the National Lawyers Guild (NLG), Breach of Privilege: Spying on Lawyers in the United States, brings to light the government’s long history of covert surveillance of attorneys and their activist clients. The release also marks the launch of a new NLG Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) project that seeks to recover FBI files on individual Guild members as exposed by the 1977 case, National Lawyers Guild v. Attorney General of the United States.
From 1940-1975, the FBI, CIA and other government agencies spied on, infiltrated and disrupted the NLG and its members. Even though no alleged or suspected criminal wrongdoing existed to justify governmental intrusion, the FBI illegally recorded privileged conversations of members, led media smear campaigns against the NLG, and even inserted informants posing as NLG staff – all resulting in significant financial and organizational damage to the Guild.
In Breach of Privilege, NLG Senior Researcher Traci Yoder gives a comprehensive analysis of covert government spying on the legal profession and its detrimental impact on the attorney-client privilege. A resource for scholars, lawyers, and activists, the report opens with the Guild’s own story of surveillance, outlining the tactics developed to undermine zealous lawyering. As Yoder demonstrates, these actions against the Guild marked the precursor to J. Edgar Hoover’s notorious COINTELPRO, which NLG members later helped expose during the Church Committee hearings of 1975-76.
Given the ongoing revelations by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, the report shows how the legacy of the government surveillance becomes manifest under the guise of security in today’s digital, post-9/11 era – ultimately violating the First, Fourth, and Sixth Amendments; quelling political activism, and undermining the integrity of our legal system.
The Guild continues to work against government secrecy and surveillance. The 1989 settlement in NLG v. Attorney General provided that data collected by the FBI would be turned over to the National Security Archive, under seal until 2025, after which they would be destroyed. NLG member Jeffrey Light in Washington, D.C. has undertaken a project to request the files collected on NLG members from 1940-1975, and described in the NLG/FBI lawsuit Settlement Agreement.
The National Lawyers Guild is also a plaintiff in a class action lawsuit brought by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) against the NSA’s bulk telephone data collection program. Read more about the case, First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles v. NSA suit in this article from the Summer 2013 issue of Guild Notes.
Access the full report at www.nlg.org/resource/reports/breach-privilege-spying-lawyers-united-states.
Author Traci Yoder is available for comment and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The National Lawyers Guild was formed in 1937 as the nation’s first racially integrated bar association to advocate for the protection of constitutional, human and civil rights.
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