Profile: Kevin Bankston
Kevin Bankston was a participant or observer in the following events:
Retired AT&T technician Mark Klein (see July 7, 2009 and May 2004), angered by the Bush administration’s counterattack against government and media members who have helped to expose its warrantless wiretapping operation (see December 15-31, 2005) and having prepared evidence to prove his knowledge of AT&T’s complicity with the NSA in setting in motion that operation (see December 31, 2005), begins searching for a civil liberties group that might be interested in his work. He quickly determines that two organizations, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), might be his best choices. Reluctant to use the telephone for fear of surveillance, he visits the EPIC offices, where he gives a lawyer a copy of the CD containing his evidence, printouts, and a disk copy of his PGP privacy key for public dissemination. He will later say that the lawyer on site is “polite” but shows little interest. When two weeks go by without any contact from EPIC, he journeys to San Francisco to the EFF offices with his documentation in hand. The reception at EFF is far different from the polite disinterest evidenced at EPIC. Executive director Shari Steele escorts him to speak with senior attorneys Kevin Bankston and Lee Tien. The EFF staffers tell Klein that their organization is already preparing a lawsuit against AT&T for illegally providing its customers’ telephone records to the government (see January 31, 2006), and his evidence will be very useful in the suit. Klein later writes, “I felt a sense of relief, that I had found the right place: a group that wanted to take on this fight.” EFF’s initial lawsuit does not include Klein’s material, but the organization will use it in the court proceedings. [Klein, 2009, pp. 55-56]
Electronic Frontier Foundation logo. [Source: Flickr.com]The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a civil liberties and privacy-advocacy organization, files a lawsuit against telecommunications giant AT&T for allegedly violating the law and the privacy of its citizens by cooperating with the National Security Agency in the NSA’s construction of what the EFF calls a “massive, illegal program to wiretap and data-mine Americans’ communications.” EFF lawyer Kevin Bankston says: “Our goal is to go after the people who are making the government’s illegal surveillance possible. They could not do what they are doing without the help of companies like AT&T. We want to make it clear to AT&T that it is not in their legal or economic interests to violate the law whenever the president asks them to.”
Unprecedented Access to Communications System - EFF alleges that as part of the NSA’s domestic spying program, AT&T has allowed the NSA direct access to the phone and Internet communications passing over its network, and has given the government “unfettered access to its over 300 terabyte ‘Daytona’ database of caller information—one of the largest databases in the world.” One of AT&T’s databases, nicknamed “Hawkeye,” contains 312 terabytes of data detailing nearly every telephone communication on AT&T’s domestic network since 2001, the lawsuit alleges. The suit goes on to claim that AT&T allowed the NSA to use the company’s powerful Daytona database management software to quickly search this and other communication databases. AT&T, the suit claims, is in violation of the First and Fourth Amendments, federal wiretapping statutes, telecommunications laws, and the Electronic Communications Privacy Act. The suit requests fines up to $22,000 for each AT&T customer, and punitive fines—damages that could potentially reach into the billions of dollars. The EFF lawsuit is one of over 30 lawsuits filed for similar reasons (see June 26, 2006). The lawsuit will survive a number of initial legal challenges by the Justice Department and AT&T, including AT&T’s contention that “whatever we did, the government told us to do” and therefore it should be immune from such lawsuits, and the Justice Department’s invocation of “national security” and the possibility of the revelation of “state secrets” (see March 9, 1953). EFF retorts, “In this country we follow the law, we don’t just follow orders.” Bankston tells a reporter, “If state secrecy can prevent us from preserving the rights of millions upon millions of people, then there is a profound problem with the law.”
Suit Alleges Criminal Actions, Does Not Challenge Government's Right to Wiretap - The lawsuit does not challenge the government’s right to electronically monitor legitimate terrorism suspects, nor does it challenge the judicial right to issue warrants for such surveillance. Rather, EFF writes: “Wiretaps on terrorists are allowed under the law, and this lawsuit is not challenging the wiretap laws. We have sued AT&T for breaking those laws—the telecommunications giant gave the government access to its communications switches and its huge databases of information on millions of ordinary Americans. These are AT&T customers who have not even been accused of affiliations with terrorists. Americans can be both safe and free: if the government truly believes it has cause to wiretap a suspect, it can order AT&T to provide information under FISA [the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act]—for up to 72 hours before going to the court. But AT&T has no business providing direct access to the communications of millions of ordinary Americans, without the checks and balances of Congress or the courts.” [Electronic Frontier Foundation, 1/31/2006; Wired News, 1/31/2006]
Retired AT&T technician Mark Klein (see December 15-31, 2005 and July 7, 2009), working with a civil liberties group and a reporter to expose the collusion of AT&T and the National Security Agency in pushing the government’s illegal surveillance program (see Early January 2006 and January 23, 2006 and After), contacts the office of Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) at the advice of Electronic Frontier Foundation lawyer Kevin Bankston. Klein talks to Feinstein’s chief attorney in Washington, DC, Steven Cash. Klein will later write: “I instinctively recoiled at the thought of trying to approach her as my memory of her record told me she was no friend of civil liberties, though she plays one on TV. My instinct was not wrong.” After an initial discussion with Cash, Klein emails him his packet of documentation (see December 31, 2005). On the afternoon of February 3, Cash calls Klein and says he is very interested in his story, though Feinstein’s staff rates the probability of the NSA performing illegal acts at somewhere around “50-50,” according to Klein. Cash promises to get back in touch with Klein on February 6, but fails to do so. Neither Klein nor his attorneys (see Early January 2006) are able to talk to anyone on Feinstein’s staff from here on. Klein later writes: “The silent message was unmistakable: the senator did not want to sully her political skirts by having contact with a whistleblower. And this was a foretaste of her behavior and voting for the next two and a half years. At every turn, she was there pushing for immunity for the telecom companies in the Senate Intelligence and Judiciary Committees; peddling her toothless restatement of the ‘exclusive means’ clause of FISA [the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act—see 1978] as a substitute for any confrontation with the president over ongoing illegal NSA spying; ushering former NSA Director Michael Hayden through his nomination for CIA director; and backing Michael Mukasey as a clone replacement for the resigning Attorney General [Alberto] Gonzales. Moreover, this ultimately turned out to be the attitude of virtually the entire Democratic Party leadership, not to mention the Republicans.” Klein will explain that FISA’s “exclusive means” clause states that FISA should be the “exclusive means” for the federal government to conduct surveillance. Congress’s duty under the law was, Klein will state, to enforce the law against President Bush, “who openly flouted the law.” Instead, Klein will claim, Feinstein uses the “exclusive means” clause to protect the Bush administration and the telecom firms. [Klein, 2009, pp. 57-60]
Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) lawyer Kevin Bankston asks AT&T whistleblower Mark Klein (see December 15-31, 2005 and July 7, 2009) to submit a legal declaration as to his knowledge of AT&T’s collusion with the National Security Agency (NSA) in its illegal domestic wiretapping program. Klein is working with the EFF in that organization’s lawsuit against AT&T (see Early January 2006 and January 31, 2006). Five days later, Klein submits his evidence of AT&T’s actions (see December 31, 2005) to Bankston to be used in the lawsuit. Klein will work with his lawyers to craft the declaration, and will have it in final form by late March. [Klein, 2009, pp. 63-64]
Federal district court judge Anna Diggs Taylor rules that the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping program (see Early 2002) is unconstitutional and orders it ended. She amends her ruling to allow the program to continue while the Justice Department appeals her decision. The decision is a result of a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other civil liberties groups. Taylor rules that the NSA program violates US citizens’ rights to privacy and free speech, the Constitutional separation of powers among the three branches of government, and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (see 1978). Taylor writes: “It was never the intent of the framers to give the president such unfettered control, particularly where his actions blatantly disregard the parameters clearly enumerated in the Bill of Rights. There are no hereditary Kings in America and no powers not created by the Constitution. So all ‘inherent powers’ must derive from that Constitution.” [Verdict in ACLU et al v. NSA et al, 8/17/2006 ; Washington Post, 8/18/2006] The program “violates the separation of powers doctrine, the Administrative Procedures Act, the First and Fourth amendments to the United States Constitution, the FISA and Title III,” Taylor writes, and adds, “[T]he president of the United States… has undisputedly violated the Fourth in failing to procure judicial orders.” [CNN, 8/17/2006]
Judge Lets One Portion Stand - Taylor rejects one part of the lawsuit that seeks information about the NSA’s data mining program (see October 2001), accepting the government’s argument that to allow that portion of the case to proceed would reveal state secrets (see March 9, 1953). Other lawsuits challenging the program are still pending. Some legal scholars regard Taylor’s decision as poorly reasoned: national security law specialist Bobby Chesney says: “Regardless of what your position is on the merits of the issue, there’s no question that it’s a poorly reasoned decision. The opinion kind of reads like an outline of possible grounds to strike down the program, without analysis to fill it in.” The White House and its Republican supporters quickly attack Taylor, who was appointed to the bench by then-President Jimmy Carter, as a “liberal judge” who is trying to advance the agenda of Congressional Democrats and “weaken national security.” For instance, Senator Mike DeWine (R-OH) says that halting the program “would hamper our ability to foil terrorist plots.” [Washington Post, 8/18/2006]
Democrats, Civil Libertarians Celebrate Ruling - But Democrats defend the ruling. For instance, Senator John Kerry (D-MA) says the ruling provides a much-needed check on the unfettered power of the Bush White House. “[N]o one is above the law,” says Kerry. [Washington Post, 8/18/2006] Lawyers for some of the other cases against the NSA and the Bush administration laud the decision as giving them vital legal backing for their own court proceedings. “We now have a ruling on the books that upholds what we’ve been saying all along: that this wiretapping program violates the Constitution,” says Kevin Bankston, who represents the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) in its class-action case against AT&T for its role in the NSA’s surveillance program (see January 31, 2006). [Washington Post, 8/18/2006] Legal expert and liberal commentator Glenn Greenwald writes that Taylor’s ruling “does not, of course, prohibit eavesdropping on terrorists; it merely prohibits illegal eavesdropping in violation of FISA. Thus, even under the court’s order, the Bush administration is free to continue to do all the eavesdropping on terrorists it wants to do. It just has to cease doing so using its own secretive parameters, and instead do so with the oversight of the FISA court—just as all administrations have done since 1978, just as the law requires, and just as it did very recently when using surveillance with regard to the [British] terror plot. Eavesdropping on terrorists can continue in full force. But it must comply with the law.” Greenwald writes: “[T]he political significance of this decision cannot be denied. The first federal court ever to rule on the administration’s NSA program has ruled that it violates the constitutional rights of Americans in several respects, and that it violates criminal law. And in so holding, the court eloquently and powerfully rejected the Bush administration’s claims of unchecked executive power in the area of national security.” [Salon, 8/17/2006]
White House Refuses to Comply - The Bush administration refuses to comply with Taylor’s ruling, asserting that the program is indeed legal and a “vital tool” in the “war on terrorism.” It will quickly file an appeal, and law professors on both sides of the issue predict that Taylor’s ruling will be overturned. [Savage, 2007, pp. 206]
Lawsuit Ends with White House 'Compromise' - The lawsuit will end when the White House announces a “compromise” between the wiretapping program and FISC (see January 17, 2007).
Entity Tags: John Kerry, Kevin Bankston, Mike DeWine, US Department of Justice, Peter Hoekstra, Glenn Greenwald, National Security Agency, George W. Bush, James Earl “Jimmy” Carter, Jr., Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, Alberto R. Gonzales, American Civil Liberties Union, AT&T, Anna Diggs Taylor, Bush administration (43), Bobby Chesney, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, Electronic Frontier Foundation
Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) files a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the recently passed amendment to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA—see July 10, 2008). The EFF is particularly concerned with the portion of the legislation that grants retroactive immunity from prosecution to telecommunications firms that worked with government agencies to illegally conduct electronic surveillance against American citizens (see December 15, 2005). The FISA Amendments Act of 2008, or FAA, violates the Constitution’s separation of powers, according to the EFF, and, the organization writes, “robs innocent telecom customers of their rights without due process of law.” The lawsuit was triggered by Attorney General Michael Mukasey’s recent submission of a classified certification in another EFF lawsuit about illegal electronic certification (see January 31, 2006) that claimed the electronic surveillance conducted on behalf of the National Security Agency by AT&T did not happen. EFF senior attorney Kevin Bankston says: “The immunity law puts the fox in charge of the hen house, letting the attorney general decide whether or not telecoms like AT&T can be sued for participating in the government’s illegal warrantless surveillance. In our constitutional system, it is the judiciary’s role as a co-equal branch of government to determine the scope of the surveillance and rule on whether it is legal, not the executive’s. The attorney general should not be allowed to unconstitutionally play judge and jury in these cases, which affect the privacy of millions of Americans.” Mukasey’s certification claimed the government has no “content-dragnet” program that surveills millions of domestic communications, though it does not deny having acquired such communications. EFF has provided the court with thousands of pages of documents proving the falsity of Mukasey’s assertions, the organization writes. EFF attorney Kurt Opsahl says: “We have overwhelming record evidence that the domestic spying program is operating far outside the bounds of the law. Intelligence agencies, telecoms, and the administration want to sweep this case under the rug, but the Constitution won’t permit it.” EFF spokesperson Rebecca Jeschke tells a reporter that the FAA “violates the federal government’s separation of powers and violates the Constitution. We want to make sure this unconstitutional law does not deny telecom customers their day in court. They have legitimate privacy claims that should be heard by a judge. Extensive evidence proves the existence of a massive illegal surveillance program affecting millions of ordinary Americans. The telecoms broke the law and took part in this. The FISA Amendments Act and its immunity provisions were an attempt to sweep these lawsuits under the rug, but it’s simply unconstitutional.” EFF lawyers fear the FAA will render their lawsuit invalid. [Electronic Frontier Foundation, 10/17/2008; Salon, 10/17/2008] The EFF has filed a related lawsuit against the NSA and senior members of the Bush administration (see September 18, 2008).
Federal judge Vaughn Walker dismisses Jewel v. NSA, a lawsuit brought by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) against the National Security Agency and senior Bush administration officials over the administration’s warrantless surveillance program (see September 18, 2008). Walker rules that the privacy harm to millions of Americans from the illegal spying dragnet was not a “particularized injury” but instead a “generalized grievance” because almost everyone in the United States has a phone and Internet service. EFF legal director Cindy Cohn says: “We’re deeply disappointed in the judge’s ruling. This ruling robs innocent telecom customers of their privacy rights without due process of law. Setting limits on executive power is one of the most important elements of America’s system of government, and judicial oversight is a critical part of that.” EFF attorney Kevin Bankston says: “The alarming upshot of the court’s decision is that so long as the government spies on all Americans, the courts have no power to review or halt such mass surveillance even when it is flatly illegal and unconstitutional. With new revelations of illegal spying being reported practically every other week… the need for judicial oversight when it comes to government surveillance has never been clearer.” The EFF indicates it will appeal Walker’s decision. [Electronic Frontier Foundation, 1/21/2010] The Obama administration echoed claims made in previous lawsuits by the Bush administration, invoking the “state secrets” privilege (see Late May, 2006) and supporting previous arguments by the Bush-era Justice Department. The administration even went a step further than its predecessor in arguing that under the Patriot Act, the government can never be sued for illegal wiretapping unless there is “willful disclosure” of the communications. [Klein, 2009, pp. 116-117]
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