US government stops scrutiny into its data mining of its citizens


US government invokes special privilege to stop scrutiny of data mining

Officials use little-known ‘military and state secrets privilege’ as civil liberties lawyers try to hold administration to account

Attorney general Eric Holder

The use of the privilege has been personally approved by Eric Holder, the attorney general, and others. Photograph: Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

The Obama administration is invoking an obscure legal privilege to avoid judicial scrutiny of its secret collection of the communications of potentially millions of Americans.

Civil liberties lawyers trying to hold the administration to account through the courts for its surveillance of phone calls and emails of American citizens have been repeatedly stymied by the government’s recourse to the “military and state secrets privilege”. The precedent, rarely used but devastating in its legal impact, allows the government to claim that it cannot be submitted to judicial oversight because to do so it would have to compromise national security.

The government has cited the privilege in two active lawsuits being heard by a federal court in the northern district of California – Virginia v Barack Obama et al, and Carolyn Jewel v the National Security Agency. In both cases, the Obama administration has called for the cases to be dismissed on the grounds that the government’s secret activities must remain secret.

The claim comes amid a billowing furore over US surveillance on the mass communications of Americans following disclosures by the Guardian of a massive NSA monitoring programme of Verizon phone records and internet communications.

The director of national intelligence, James Clapper, has written in court filings that “after careful and actual personal consideration of the matter, based upon my own knowledge and information obtained in the course of my official duties, I have determined that the disclosure of certain information would cause exceptionally grave damage to the national security of the United States. Thus, as to this information, I formally assert the state secrets privilege.”

The use of the privilege has been personally approved by President Obama and several of the administration’s most senior officials: in addition to Clapper, they include the director of the NSA Keith Alexander and Eric Holder, the attorney general. “The attorney general has personally reviewed and approved the government’s privilege assertion in these cases,” legal documents state.

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