WASHINGTON, D.C. - Sen. Rand Paul and an allied Tea Party group filed a class action lawsuit against the Obama administration today over the National Security Agency's bulk collection of phone records
Although today's legal action is not the first brought against the agency since a series of leaks by its former contractor Edward Snowden brought the practice to light, Paul's suit is the only one filed as a class-action.
"We fought the American Revolution because we were unhappy about British soldiers writing generalized warrants," Paul, R-Ky., said at a press conference outside the Washington's U.S. District Court today. "We wrote the Fourth Amendment to be specific to the person, to the place, and to the items. There's a huge and growing swell of protest in this country of people who are outraged that their records will be taken without suspicion, without a judge's warrant, and without individualization."
Paul, a libertarian with presidential ambitions, said it was possibly the "largest class action lawsuit ever filed on behalf of the Bill of Rights." His political action group, RandPAC, collected 360,000 signatures from supporters before filing the case, but Paul said it could conceivably include every American with a phone line or mobile device.
Signing the online petition also prompts supporters to donate to the committee.
Matt Kibbe, whose Tea Party organization FreedomWorks partnered with Paul, said the filing was one of the "most important" actions the group had undertaken.
"This is about a government that's crossed a line," he said. "We want to put that genii back in the bottle because the Bill of Rights is a sacred document to everybody who is an American citizen."
Paul and FreedomWorks will be represented Ken Cuccinelli, the former Virginia attorney general who recently lost a bid in that state's gubernatorial election. Cuccinelli, who frequently represents conservative interests in the courts, said he expected the case to eventually go to the Supreme Court - a process that could take several years. The plaintiffs are seeking the court to order the complete halt to the collection of phone metadata by the NSA.
Despite the high profile nature of the filing its future is unclear. Judges may need to agree that collection of the data has damaged Americans, a gray area that has been difficult to prove in similar cases. And last year separate judges ruled opposite each other in cases over the surveillance programs: One upholding the practice as legal and the other as likely unconstitutional. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court has overwhelmingly upheld the collection, although their practice of generally ruling in secret has been central to the controversy.
The filing names President Obama, NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander, and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper as defendants in the case, among other officials. In a written response the White House said it still believed the metadata collection program - which does not actively eavesdrop on calls - was not in violation of the Constitution.
"As we've said previously we believe the program as it exists is lawful," National Security Council spokesperson Caitlin Hayden wrote. "Indeed, it has been found to be lawful by multiple courts. And it receives oversight from all three branches of government, including the Congress."
Last month Obama announced he planned to overhaul the collection of the data, tasking the intelligence community with finding an alternative to the NSA's storage of the records by March 28 when the program is up for reauthorization. The president also said the agency would only "pursue phone calls that are two steps removed from a number associated with a terrorist organization instead of three," effective immediately, among other changes.