Washington, DC – The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) today asked the Supreme Court of the United States to weigh in on a long-standing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit in which EFF sought to obtain a secret legal memo authorizing the FBI to obtain phone records without any legal process.
As part of the U.S. Department of Justice, the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) issues opinions that provide the legal justification for a wide variety of executive branch activities, in ways that affect millions of Americans. The opinion sought by EFF appears to have authorized the federal government, specifically the FBI, to obtain call records without judicial approval and without citing an emergency to justify the data collection.
Some of the most controversial government practices of the past 15 years—such as torture and the targeted killing of Americans abroad—were based on OLC legal authorizations. If EFF’s petition for a “writ of certiorari” is successful, the Supreme Court will have the opportunity to decide when OLC opinions should be released to the public.
“The public has a fundamental right to know how the federal government is interpreting surveillance and privacy laws,” EFF Senior Counsel David Sobel said. “If the Office of Legal Counsel has interpreted away federal privacy protections in secret, the public absolutely needs access to that analysis. There is no way for the public to intelligently advocate for reforms when we’re intentionally kept in the dark.”
The existence of this opinion first came to light in a report issued by the Justice Department’s Inspector General on the FBI’s use of its surveillance authorities in national security investigations. The Inspector General’s report indicated the OLC issued a determination that appeared to conflict with the Stored Communications Act, a federal privacy law that safeguards customer call records from disclosure to the government without valid legal process.
EFF submitted a FOIA request for more information. The Justice Department refused to comply and subsequently EFF filed a lawsuit in May 2011 to obtain the records. While the case was unsuccessful at the district and appeals court levels, EFF believes the issue is of such significance that it merits review by the highest court.
“OLC opinions have formed the legal basis for some incredibly controversial government actions,” EFF Staff Attorney Mark Rumold said. “It can’t be left to the executive branch’s discretion to release these critically important opinions. We hope the Supreme Court will take the opportunity to clarify that this type of secret law has no place in a democratic society.”