Reuters / Michael Dalder
Michael Taylor says the National Security Agency has had him under surveillance for years, sending messages to his brain from afar and tracking his movements.
Sometimes the alleged harassment is so unrelenting that the 44-year-old Dublin, Ga., man says he can’t go a single minute without hearing from his unseen tormentors, though he has no idea what they want with him.
Taylor is one in a long line of paranoid citizens who claim they are the targets of nefarious government plots featuring high-tech spies and shadowy agencies, and who now find themselves on the front lines of a multi-front legal battle against the NSA’s omnipresent surveillance regime -- a fight that has attracted its share of conspiracy theorists as well as established organizations and individuals who allege that their rights have been violated by the agency.
Call it the aftershock of the torrent of disclosures about NSA eavesdropping activities by former agency contractor Edward Snowden, which precipitated a series of embarrassments, international incidents and scandals for the U.S. government, including revelations that the NSA was tracking metadata on millions of domestic phone calls, logging email trails and listening in on leaders of countries from Germany to Brazil. No sooner had these secrets surfaced than dozens of American citizens and organizations took to the courts to sue the NSA for its alleged outlaw behavior.
The cases range from the straightforward to the fantastic -- the plaintiffs cover a broad swath from the tinfoil-hat crowd and delusional conspiracy theorists to legitimate organizations and privacy activists -- but almost any suspected form of NSA surveillance is deemed potentially relevant in the wake of the far-reaching spying programs already exposed. In one way or another, most of the litigation, which may be directed at President Barack Obama and other government agencies as well as the NSA, argues that the plaintiffs have legal standing for legitimate claims against the government for violating their rights to free speech, against illegal search and seizure, and other constitutional protections.
Paranoia Strikes Deep
Taylor, who was released from a four-and-a-half-year prison sentence about three years ago after being convicted of two counts of threatening a judge and identity fraud, has long harbored notions that he is being harassed and watched by the NSA. He claims that NSA agents have been speaking directly to him every day through a process of direct transference to his brain that he can’t explain but says “may be through some acoustic program.” It’s a wild accusation, but Taylor is strongly convinced that he has for years been a target of interference initiated at distant NSA outposts and somehow relayed into his mind.
“It may sound unrealistic, but the NSA has the ability to talk to people ... not located at their facilities," Taylor told IBTimes by phone. "Sometimes they get hostile, sometimes they are very nice. They have been harassing me -- things such as, ‘I don’t give a bleep about you,’ things such as constantly uplinking me to talk to me -- about every second of the day.”
After his arrest in 2006, Taylor said he was told by a law enforcement officer that he is in fact under NSA surveillance, though Taylor doesn’t “really have a clue why they would” want to bother him. But it wasn’t until his release from a group home earlier this year that Taylor embarked on a legal battle to get to the bottom of why he is supposedly being spied on by the nation’s intelligence forces.
To start, he submitted a Freedom of Information Act request demanding that the agency provide the authorizations to wiretap him that he believes must exist somewhere, or, barring that, must have been illegally circumvented. “That’s why I’m trying to acquire the documents, is, I’m trying to find out for myself why they have me under surveillance,” he said.
The NSA claimed exemption from the request under FOIA law in a letter dated June 25, 2013, declining to state whether it is watching Taylor or if the documents he requested exist, further stoking his paranoia and spurring him to file a civil action against the agency in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Georgia on July 5. His hope is that the court will compel the NSA either to provide the authorizations in question, even if they are redacted, or admit that it has no such documents in its possession.
“One, they will neither confirm nor deny having the documents. Two, I believe if they do have the documents, I can’t have them because of them being classified. I was seeking the unclassified portions of the document,” Taylor said. “And if I find out the reasons why they have me under surveillance, perhaps maybe I could petition to a judge to maybe say that it’s not justifiable to have me under surveillance so they could stop the harassment.”
The NSA has expended valuable time and taxpayer dollars addressing Taylor’s claims, and its associate director for policy and records, David J. Sherman, issued an 11-page filing on Aug. 6 explaining the agency’s reasons for being exempt from the FOIA request, including potential national security concerns and the possibility that confidential information could be released, but the case still remains tied up in court.
Taylor has a soulmate of sorts in Cedric Maurice Wilson. The Ramsey, Minn., resident believes that the NSA is using satellites to target him with electromagnetic radiation and engage in “electronic harassment” against him. In a rambling, hand-scrawled complaint filed in U.S. District Court in St. Paul on Aug. 23, Wilson demanded that the agency stop interfering with his life, describing its alleged activities as follows (the text has been edited for spelling):
“From the base to the satellites sending electromagnetic radiation my whole body, base, satellite surveillance, electromagnetic radiation energy to my whole body! Need to turn [the frequency] off! Death Threatening!”
The complaint reads like the diary of a Pynchonian madman, and the 46-year-old is aware that his story could be judged as delusional, as he included a document titled “Defending Against False Diagnosis of Mental Illness” in a series of exhibits he submitted to the court on Sept. 3. He also enlisted his doctor to provide a letter supporting his concerns.
Wilson's case, like many others of similar nature, probably will end up being thrown out on the basis that Wilson is exhibiting fantastical thinking and extreme paranoia. But the NSA’s opponents are not all so easily dispatched. Claims against the NSA are also being lodged by more credible citizens and organizations who don’t claim to have been individually singled out for monitoring, but rather maintain that they are members of a broad class -- all Americans, all users of a particular phone service provider, all organizations of a specific type, etc. -- that have had their rights breached by the NSA’s surveillance programs.
For example, in First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles et al. v. National Security Agency et al., more than a dozen groups as varied as the Ohio branch of the Council on American Islamic Relations, the California Association of Federal Firearms Licensees, Greenpeace and Students for Sensible Drug Policy have banded together to sue the NSA and other federal officials and entities. They claimed in a complaint filed in U.S. District Court in the Northern District of California on July 16 that the defendants violated their First, Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights via the NSA’s domestic telephone information collection program, known as the Associational Tracking Program.
“[The plaintiffs] are associations, as well as the members and staffs of associations, who use the telephone to engage in private communications supportive of their associations and activities, including engaging in speech, assembly, petition for the redress of grievances, and the exercise of religion,” the plaintiffs state in the complaint, enumerating rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.
The filing goes on to explicitly state the means by which the organizations contend that the NSA systematically violated their rights via the phone surveillance program, and particularly what they describe as its chilling effects on their lawful operations. “Plaintiffs’ associations and political advocacy efforts, as well as those of their members and staffs, are chilled by the fact that the Associational Tracking Program creates a permanent record of all of plaintiffs’ telephone communications with their members and constituents among others,” reads one of the various allegations the plaintiffs make in support of their claim.
The complaint asks the court to declare the Associational Tracking Program to be in violation of their constitutional rights, to issue a permanent injunction prohibiting the NSA from continuing to operate the surveillance program, and to return to the plaintiffs all the records, communications and other information obtained from them via the program. The plaintiffs plan to ask in February for partial summary judgment in the case.
In at least a few instances, the NSA itself has threatened legal action against Americans, which in turn led to lawsuits naming the agency as defendants. For instance, the case of Dan McCall, whose website, LibertyManiacs.com, has since 2004 sold products lampooning the American government. Among the McCall-designed items are shirts emblazoned with slogans like “Obama Airways: Nobody’s flying, but plenty are dying” to bumper stickers accusing the Federal Reserve of fraud.
It was only natural that McCall would add a new line of anti-NSA items as the Snowden files emerged. And in June he offered for sale merchandise bearing the catchphrase “The NSA: The only part of government that listens” with an NSA seal doctored to say “peeping while you’re sleeping,” as well as products bearing the actual NSA logo accompanied by the phrase “Spying On You Since 1952.”
Apparently the NSA really does listen, or at least watch. The agency monitors the Web for parody products that misuses its logos, seals or slogans. On March 25, 2011, agency lawyers sent a letter to Zazzle.com -- the site that prints McCall’s ideas onto mugs, T-shirts, stickers and more and hosts them on its online marketplace -- demanding that it remove products bearing the NSA’s name and insignia. Zazzle agreed to do so, according to court documents. In that letter, the “NSA pointed out that, under Zazzle's terms of service, vendors are not permitted to offer any item that ‘potentially infringes any intellectual or proprietary rights of any party,’" the documents state.
At the time, little attention was being paid to surveillance issues involving to the NSA, and there was much less money than now to be made from agency-related paraphernalia. So, to avoid shelling out funds for a lengthy legal battle, McCall chose not to fight the order in court, and the items that the NSA objected to were taken off the market.
But with the NSA all over the news this year, McCall couldn’t resist posting new anti-NSA products. Almost as soon as they were put up for sale in June, the NSA brought forth the letter original sent to Zazzle and demanded that the company abide by it again and remove the offending items. Zazzle again did so, according to Paul Alan Levy, an attorney with the Public Citizen Litigation Group, which is representing McCall pro bono.
Levy heard about McCall’s legal entanglement with the NSA via an online news report and contacted McCall, saying that he had a legitimate claim against the agency. And on Oct. 29, McCall filed a complaint in U.S. District Court in Maryland, asking a judge to rule that he had not violated the two federal statutes that the NSA claims are grounds to demand that the parody merchandise be taken off of the online retail forum.
“He just seeks a declaration of his legal rights, establishing that the NSA was engaged in overreaching here,” Levy told IBTimes, adding later that, “We say that the statutes aren’t violated, but if the statutes are violated, then the statutes are unconstitutional as applied.”
Levy has successfully argued similar cases against companies including Wal-Mart that have tried to force other retailers to stop selling merchandise that criticizes them by doctoring their trademarked logos.
He may have more difficulty, however, against the NSA, which has enjoyed a relatively smooth ride in court up until now. But people like McCall, not to mention Michael Taylor, are hoping that the NSA’s charmed legal existence may be about to change. Stranger things have happened: After all, those of us who dismiss Taylor’s claims that the agency has a direct line into his brain would until recently probably have rejected as equally outlandish how many places the NSA actually does have its tentacles.