Clinic News

Samuelson Clinic submits Amicus Brief in First Unitarian v. NSA on behalf of Experts in the History of Executive Surveillance (11/15/13)

Without court oversight, United States intelligence agencies are at risk of repeating historical abuses, such as surveillance of political opponents and other innocent Americans, argued the Samuelson Law, Technology & Public Policy Clinic in an amicus brief submitted to the court in First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles v. NSA. The brief is on behalf of three preeminent experts in the history of American surveillance: James Bamford, author of The Puzzle Palace and the preeminent chronicler of the NSA; Peter Fenn, who served as Washington Chief of Staff for Senator Frank Church and as a staff member to the Senate Intelligence Committee; and Dr. Loch Johnson, who served as special assistant to the Church Committee chair and as staff director of the House Subcommittee on Intelligence Oversight. All were directly involved in the comprehensive review of twentieth-century American intelligence operations completed by the Church Committee in the 1970s.

Drawing from the experts’ extensive knowledge, the brief explains the clear parallels between the development and growth of the abusive practices of the mid-twentieth century—when American intelligence agencies helped conduct politically motivated surveillance of Americans ranging from ordinary teachers, journalists and peace activists to civil rights leaders, members of Congress, and a Supreme Court justice—and today’s vast surveillance programs. History shows that abusive surveillance does not require bad actors to grow and flourish: instead, it is the natural outgrowth of too much secrecy and too little oversight by other branches of government.

In light of this clear historical pattern, the brief argues that the court should carefully apply existing legal limits on the government’s surveillance powers to address the risks posed by the executive branch and the intelligence agencies’ claims to expansive power to determine the limits of their own activities.

The First Unitarian lawsuit was filed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) on behalf of First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles and 21 other membership and political advocacy organizations—from gun rights advocates to church groups to Greenpeace—whose First Amendment right to freedom of association is currently threatened by recently revealed government surveillance programs that collect and store vast numbers of Americans’ phone records.

Samuelson Clinic students Charles Crain and Jesse Koehler worked with supervisors Professor Jennifer M. Urban and Chris Jay Hoofnagle to file the brief. Clinic student Samia Hossain also worked on the brief.

Read the brief here.