U.S. rights activists, church leaders and drug and gun rights advocates found common ground and filed a lawsuit Tuesday against the federal government to halt a vast National Security Agency electronic surveillance program.
The lawsuit was filed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which represents the unusually broad coalition of plaintiffs, and seeks an injunction against the NSA, Justice Department, FBI and directors of the agencies.
It challenges what the plaintiffs describe as an "illegal and unconstitutional program of dragnet electronic surveillance."
The lawsuit comes after former NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked details about NSA surveillance programs earlier this year, revealing a broad U.S. intelligence program to monitor Internet and telephone activity in search of terror plots.
Snowden, who has been charged with spying and theft of government property, has spent the past three weeks in the transit zone of Moscow's main airport. On Tuesday, he submitted a request for temporary asylum in Russia, his lawyer said, claiming he faces persecution from the U.S. government and could face torture or death.
NSA public affairs deferred comment on the lawsuit to the Justice Department. A Justice Department spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The coalition of 19 groups, representing about 900,000 people, demands that the federal government return and destroy any telephone communications information in its possession. It also wants a jury trial on the allegations contained in the suit.
The plaintiffs include the Council on American Islamic Relations Foundation, Greenpeace, Human Rights Watch, Students for Sensible Drug Policy and others.
The federal government has "indiscriminately obtained, and stored the telephone communications information of millions of ordinary Americans," the lawsuit says.
Last month, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a similar lawsuit in federal court asking the government to stop the phone tracking program. Several other civil libertarian organizations have also filed legal actions.
Plaintiff Gene Hoffman, chairman of The Calguns Foundation, which advocates against gun control laws, said members are nervous about calling hotlines to ask if they are inadvertently violating any rules or regulations.
"It's a very serious concern that the sensitive conversation would be something the federal government or state government ... could access and realize what's going on," he said.
A legal expert said the biggest challenge that plaintiffs face is proving they have been wiretapped or been a victim of surveillance.
"But it's now clear that virtually everyone's phone call records can be gathered in this metadata collection program, so I believe they do have standing," said University of Chicago law professor Geoffrey Stone.
Other legal issues include whether the surveillance constitutes a violation of the Fourth Amendment, which guards against unreasonable searches and seizures.
George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley said the Obama administration will likely argue, as it has in the past, that the surveillance is protecting national security.
"It's distressing that until the Snowden disclosures, the administration insisted that any discussion of these surveillance programs would cause grave national security problems," Turley said. "What's fascinating is that after Snowden came forward, the administration didn't hesitate a second in discussing the surveillance in public realm."
After Snowden's disclosures, Yahoo asked the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which reviews U.S. government requests to spy on individuals, to unseal a 2008 case that ordered the company to turn over customer data.
On Monday the court agreed, although the government is going to review the records first to see what material, if any, is classified and should be withheld.
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