U.S. Supreme Court backs Government Spying of Citizens

AP | FEBRUARY 26, 2013

A sharply-divided Supreme Court on Tuesday threw out an attempt by U.S. citizens to challenge the expansion of a surveillance law used to monitor conversations of foreign spies and terrorist suspects.

With a 5-4 vote, the high court ruled that a group of American lawyers, journalists and organizations can’t sue to challenge the 2008 expansion of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) because they can’t prove that the government will monitor their conversations along with those of potential foreign terrorist and intelligence targets.

The outcome was the first in the current Supreme Court term to divide along ideological lines, with the conservative justices prevailing.

Justices “have been reluctant to endorse standing theories that require guesswork,” said Justice Samuel Alito, who wrote for the court’s majority.

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, was enacted in 1978. It allows the government to monitor conversations of foreign spies and terrorist suspects abroad for intelligence purposes. The 2008 FISA amendments allow the government to obtain from a secret court broad, yearlong intercept orders, raising the prospect that phone calls and emails between those foreign targets and innocent Americans in this country would be swept under the umbrella of surveillance.

Without proof that the law would directly affect them, Americans can’t sue, Alito said in the ruling.

Despite their documented fears and the expense of activities that some Americans have taken to be sure they don’t get caught up in government monitoring, they “have set forth no specific facts demonstrating that the communications of their foreign contacts will be targeted,” he added.

Alito also said the FISA expansion merely authorizes, but does not mandate or direct, the government monitoring. Because of that, he said, “respondents’ allegations are necessarily conjectural. Simply put, respondents can only speculate as to how the attorney general and the Director of National Intelligence will exercise their discretion in determining which communications to target.”

Alito was joined in his decision by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.

Justice Stephen Breyer, writing in dissent, said that he would have allowed the lawsuit to move forward because he thinks “the government has a strong motive to listen to conversations of the kind described.”

“We need only assume that the government is doing its job (to find out about, and combat terrorism) in order to conclude that there is a high probability that the government will intercept at least some electronic communication to which at least some of the plaintiffs are party,” Breyer said. “The majority is wrong when it describes the harm threatened plaintiffs as “speculative,” Breyer said.

He was joined in his dissent by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

Jonathan Hafetz, an expert on national security and privacy issues who teaches at Seton Hall University’s law school, said, “The decision effectively insulates the government’s increasingly broad surveillance powers from meaningful court review, threatening constitutional liberties in the name of secrecy and security.” Hafetz used to work for the American Civil Liberties Union, which represented the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

A federal judge originally threw out the lawsuit, saying the plaintiffs lacked standing to sue. But the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated the lawsuit. The Supreme Court was not considering the constitutionality of the expansion, only whether lawyers could file a lawsuit to challenge it in federal court.

Alito re-emphasized that point, saying the decision did not insulate the FISA expansion from judicial review, and he suggested a couple of ways a challenge could be brought to court, including a scenario in which an American lawyer actually did get swept up in FISA monitoring.

“It is possible that the monitoring of the target’s conversations with his or her attorney would provide grounds for a claim of standing on the part of the attorney,” Alito said. “Such an attorney would certainly have a stronger evidentiary basis for establishing standing than do respondents in the present case.”

 

U.S. teachers take up arms to prevent mass shootings

AFP | DECEMBER 28, 2012

Several US states are considering allowing school teachers to carry weapons, and educators, determined not to allow a repeat of the Newtown massacre, are flocking to training sessions.

As gun control advocates try to outlaw military-style assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, gun enthusiasts, backed by the powerful National Rifle Association (NRA), are taking a very different approach.

The gun lobby argues that there is no way to stop crazy or evil people doing bad things and so the only sure-fire way to prevent mass shootings like the one at Sandy Hook elementary is to take down the shooter.

In a rare press conference one week after 20-year-old Adam Lanza shot dead 20 six- and seven-year-olds and six adults with a Bushmaster AR-15 assault rifle, the NRA called for armed guards in every school in the country.

But in Utah, one of the handful of American states that currently allows people to carry licensed concealed weapons into public schools, many teachers are unwilling to wait and see which political argument wins out.

In response to Newtown, the Utah Shooting Sports Council (USSC) waived its fee on Thursday for educators wanting to participate in training sessions to gain permits to carry concealed weapons.

More than half of the roughly 400 education professionals that showed an interest had to be turned away because there wasn’t enough room on the course.

“We had about 400 that wanted to do it and we only had seating for about 180,” USSC board member Bill Scott told AFP.

The surge in interest was seen by organizers as a direct response to the shooting in Newtown, with teachers showing a heightened awareness that people are responsible for their own safety and wanting their own permits.

“A lot of these people may have shot all their lives and some of them may have never touched a gun,” Scott said.

“We’re not advocating that all teachers should be armed. We’re just saying that those that choose to be armed, that want to get the training, they have the right to do that in Utah, we’d like to facilitate that.”

While teachers train themselves to try to stop the next Lanza, state officials like Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne are busily crafting legislation to make sure they can legally do so.

“The proposal is that any school that wishes to do so may designate the principal or another designee to receive training in the use of firearms and how to handle emergencies such as that which occurred in Newtown,” he said.

Ideally, there would be an armed police officer in every school, but due to budget considerations this may not be possible, so training a designated teacher to handle firearms is “the next best solution,” Horne said.

Pro-gun lawmakers in Florida, Minnesota, Oregon, South Dakota and Tennessee have also vowed to propose legislation in the coming months that would allow for armed teachers in schools.

“Hopefully, these monsters, these animals that are doing this stuff will stay away from the schools,” said Scott.

“Our view also is that it’s not just that you would actively engage the shooter, just the fact that the bad guys know that teachers are armed in Utah is a huge deterrent.

“They tend to pick targets where they know there will be lots of innocent victims and they’re not going to encounter any resistance.”

As teachers stripped semi-automatic pistols on tables at the USSC gathering, Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein was putting the final touches to a bill that would ban weapons like the one Lanza used in Newtown.

Gun rights advocates, led by the NRA, are stringently against such measures.

“The thing about them being assault weapons, it’s a misnomer,” said Scott.

“These weapons are no different than a standard sporting weapon. We don’t support any bans on those because true military weapons are already banned in the United States.”