By SAM SCOTT
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
As a novelist, Carolyn Jewel never knows where her research will take her.
She’s studied the power of rail guns, war in Europe, and the history of Syria. And all along she corresponds with readers throughout the world, including from Islamic countries like Indonesia.
And she doesn’t want to worry how all that might look to an official peering over her shoulder, which is why the Petaluma author is taking on the government’s largest espionage service.
The single mother is lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against the National Security Agency, claiming it scooped up copies of her calls and internet records and those of millions of others in violation of their Constitutional rights.
“We are supposed to be able to live our lives without worry that the government is looking in,” she said. “If they are, that’s wrong.”
The case, which was filed in September 2008, got new life two weeks ago when a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a lower court’s dismissal.
The agency referred questions to the U.S. Department of Justice, which did in turn did not respond.
The NSA is the lesser-known, but larger, cousin of the country’s most prominent spy outfit — the Central Intelligence Agency. For decades, even its existence was secret.
But its power is vast. According to a story in the New Yorker magazine last year, the NSA has the capacity to intercept and download electronic communications equivalent in size to the contents of the Library of Congress every six hours.
Since 9/11, more of its focus has turned to domestic communications. In 2005, the New York Times revealed the agency was eavesdropping within the country without court-approved warrants ordinarily required for domestic spying.
President Bush acknowledged authorizing targeting communications where one party was believed to be a member of a terrorist organization.
Had it been in place prior to 9/11, some of the attackers would have been detected, he said.
“In this era of new dangers, we must be able to connect the dots before the terrorists strike,” Bush said in January 2006. “And this NSA program is doing just that.”
But others saw a indiscriminate dragnet that touched virtually everyone. Mark Klein, a retired AT&T technician, went public with his concerns about a secret room he said was installed by the NSA on the sixth floor of AT&T’s Folsom Street offices in San Francisco.
Klein had worked on circuits carrying the site’s Internet traffic, installing splitters that he said made copies of the rush of data for storage in the room.
He believed similar facilities were built at Internet hubs elsewhere, giving the government the ability to analyze each message passing through, he said.
“That’s a gross violation of the Fourth Amendment,” Klein said in an interview last week. “You learn in high school civics. They are not allowed to spy on you or seize your property without a warrant.”
AT&T declined comment.
Klein’s information helped the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based non-profit focused on digital rights, craft a pair of lawsuits, one against AT&T and the other against the government.
The foundation put out a call for plaintiffs who would have standing in the cases — Bay Area AT&T customers whose Internet traffic almost certainly fed through Folsom Street.
Jewel learned of their search from an email list and volunteered out of dismay at feeling subject to surveillance without cause.
Despite the modern sheen on the issue, Cindy Cohn, EFF’s legal director, sees it as no different than the colonists’ fight against general warrants granting British soldiers limitless law enforcement power.
“It’s a foundation of this country,” she said. “It appears our federal government has decided in the digital age they don’t have to abide by the rules and that’s important.”
Jewel and her supporters at EFF face long odds in the court. On the same day the case against the NSA was reinstated, the same judges upheld a ruling granting AT&T and other telecoms immunity for cooperating with the government.
EFF has yet to decide whether to appeal that decision. Cohn said she hopes to be back in court by February or March for the case against the NSA.
Jewel was delighted by the appellate court’s decision. It came just as she was putting the finishing touches on her latest book, an historical romance called “Not Proper Enough.”
It’s set in Regency England, an unsettled time of war when the full protections of citizenship extended only to some, she said.
“There were a lot of very similar issues,” she said.
You can reach Staff Writer Sam Scott at 521-5431 or at email@example.com.