As Supreme Court declines to get involved, lower courts in Washington and New York offer fresh test of government snooping on Americans.
WASHINGTON -- The first court challenge to the federal government's mass surveillance of Americans' phone and Internet records opened Monday with two potential strikes against it, but the judge predicted it could go all the way to the Supreme Court.
Federal District Court Judge Richard Leon expressed concern that conservative activist Larry Klayman and others lacked standing to bring the case and that his court lacked jurisdiction -- factors that could further insulate the spy programs from public oversight.
"To me, this is the overarching question," Leon said, referring to "this court's authority or lack thereof to inject itself into this situation."
The two programs, made public earlier this year by Edward Snowden, a former National Security Agency contractor now living in Russia, are reviewed by a top-secret court under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. But challengers from the political right and left are trying to have that court's periodic approvals circumvented.
From the right on Monday came Klayman, a former Reagan administration lawyer who leads the advocacy group Freedom Watch. In an hour-long hearing, he called Leon "the last guard ... the last sentry to the tyranny in this country."
But Justice Department lawyer James Gilligan said Klayman lacked standing to bring the case because he cannot prove the NSA examined his phone or Internet records. Gilligan also said Leon cannot review the statutory authority granted by Congress under FISA -- only the secret courts and the Supreme Court have that power.
Coincidentally, the Supreme Court on Monday turned down a chance to review the NSA's harvesting of Verizon phone records in a case brought by the watchdog group Electronic Privacy Information Center. The justices offered no reason for their decision.
The law "makes it very difficult to challenge these determinations,' said Marc Rotenberg, president of the privacy group.
Another challenge, brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, will be heard by U.S. District Court Judge William Pauley in Manhattan on Friday. Those two cases are likely to be appealed "upstairs," Leon said -- to appeals courts and possibly the Supreme Court.
Both Klayman and the ACLU are seeking preliminary injunctions that would put a halt to the NSA surveillance. Both have targeted a program that sweeps up domestic telephone records, even though the targets are foreign terrorists. Klayman also is challenging a separate program that goes after cellphone and computer data from major wireless companies and Internet service providers.
Amnesty International and a coalition of lawyers, journalists and others brought the last Supreme Court challenge to government surveillance programs in 2012. But in February, the justices ruled 5-4 that the challengers lacked standing because they could not prove they had been wiretapped.
Even if judges rule against Klayman and the ACLU, the controversial programs may get a full court test because the Justice Department has begun notifying criminal defendants whose arrests were based on warrantless surveillance. That makes the prospect of a future Supreme Court case more likely.