Doe v. Gonzales

Decision Date09 September 2005
Docket NumberNo. CIVA3:05CV1256(JCH).,CIVA3:05CV1256(JCH).
Citation386 F.Supp.2d 66
PartiesJohn DOE, et al., Plaintiffs v. Alberto GONZALES, in his official capacity as Attorney General of the United States, et al., Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — District of Connecticut

Ann Beeson, Jameel Jaffer, Melissa Allison Goodman, American Civil Liberties Union Foundation, New York, NY, Annette M. Lamoreaux, Connecticut Civil Liberties Union Foundation, Hartford, CT, for Plaintiffs.

Carlton E. Greene, U.S. Dept. of Justice, Washington, DC, Kevin J. O'Connor, U.S. Attorney's Office, New Haven, CT, Lisa E. Perkins, William A. Collier, U.S. Attorney's Office, Hartford, CT, for Defendants.


HALL, District Judge.


On August 9, 2005, the plaintiffs filed suit challenging the constitutionality of 18 U.S.C. § 2709. One of the plaintiffs is John Doe, the recipient of a National Security Letter ("NSL") issued pursuant to § 2709. That section requires any "wire or electronic communication service provider" to comply with requests by the Federal Bureau of Investigation ("FBI") for information. 18 U.S.C. § 2709(a)(2001). Specifically, the statute permits the FBI to "request the name, address, and length of service of a person or entity if the Director (or his designee) certifies in writing to the wire or electronic communication service provider to which the request is made that the information sought is relevant to an authorized investigation to protect against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities." Id. at § 2709(b)(2).

In this lawsuit, the plaintiffs claim, first, that § 2709 violates the First Amendment by prohibiting any person from disclosing that the FBI has sought or obtained information with a NSL; second, that § 2709 violates the First Amendment by authorizing the FBI to order disclosure of constitutionally protected information without tailoring its demand to a demonstrably compelling need; third, that § 2709 violates the First and Fourth Amendments because it fails to provide for or specify a mechanism by which a recipient can challenge the NSL's validity; fourth, that § 2709 violates the First, Fourth, and Fifth Amendments by authorizing the FBI to demand disclosure of constitutionally protected information without prior notice to individuals whose information is disclosed and without requiring that the FBI justify that denial of notice on a case-by-case basis; and fifth, that § 2709 violates the Fifth Amendment because it is unconstitutionally vague. With respect to all five challenges, the plaintiffs claim that the statute is unconstitutional both on its face and as applied to them. They seek declaratory and injunctive relief.

Currently pending before the court is plaintiffs' motion for preliminary relief filed on August 16, 2005. The NSL in question tracks the language of the statute in advising the recipient "that Title 18, U.S.C., Section 2709(c), prohibits any officer, employee or agent of yours from disclosing to any person that the FBI has sought or obtained access to information or records under these provisions [18 U.S.C. § 2709]." Redacted Exh. A to Redacted Compl. The issue before the court in connection with the motion for preliminary injunction is whether the § 2709(c) prohibition on the plaintiffs' disclosure of the identity of the recipient is unconstitutional as applied in this case such that enforcement of that prohibition ought to be enjoined pending resolution of the case on the merits.

At a telephone status conference on August 18, 2005, the parties agreed that the relevant facts are not in dispute. See Charette v. Town of Oyster Bay, 159 F.3d 749, 755 (2d Cir.1998) ("An evidentiary hearing is not required when the relevant facts either are not in dispute or have been clearly demonstrated at prior stages of the case...."). The court imposed an expedited briefing schedule. The defendants filed their brief in opposition, with a supporting affidavit, on August 29, 2005. Plaintiffs replied on August 30, 2005. The court heard oral argument on August 31, 2005. At the court's request, and only after the court reviewed the parties' post-argument briefs and relevant case law on the propriety of ex parte review of classified materials, the defendants made available to the court for review certain classified information on September 5, 2005. The court has now reviewed this material. See Section III, infra.


A Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agent telephoned the plaintiff, John Doe ("Doe"), a member of the American Library Association. Doe possesses information about library patrons. The agent informed an individual at Doe that the FBI would be serving a NSL on Doe and asked who at Doe could accept service. Two agents delivered the NSL to Doe. The NSL is on FBI letterhead and signed by defendant John Roe ("Roe").

The NSL directs Doe "to provide to the [FBI] any and all subscriber information, billing information and access logs of any person or entity related to []." Redacted Exh. A to Redacted Compl. As required by § 2709, the NSL "certif[ies] that the information sought is relevant to an authorized investigation to protect against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities, and that such an investigation of a United States person is not conducted solely on the basis of activities protected by the first amendment to the Constitution of the United States." Id. The NSL also includes a non-disclosure provision. Specifically the letter correctly advises the recipient that, "Title 18, U.S.C., Section 2709(c), prohibits any officer, employee or agent of yours from disclosing to any person that the FBI has sought or obtained access to information or records under these provisions." Id.

To date, Doe has not supplied the information demanded by the NSL, and the FBI has not sought to compel compliance. Following its receipt of the NSL, Doe sought legal counsel and retained the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation ("ACLU Foundation"), which represents Doe in this action and is also a plaintiff. The ACLU Foundation is a 501(c)(3) organization that provides free legal representation to individuals and organizations in civil liberties cases. The third plaintiff is the American Civil Liberties Union ("ACLU"), a 501(c)(4) organization that lobbies and provides public education regarding civil liberties issues.

Arguing that § 2709(c)'s ban on speech prohibits them from engaging in constitutionally protected speech that is relevant and perhaps crucial to an ongoing and time-sensitive national policy debate, the plaintiffs moved for preliminary relief to enjoin enforcement of § 2709(c) as to Doe's identity.


When pressed about their basis for the asserted compelling state interest for § 2709(c)'s gag provision, defendants offered at oral argument to make certain classified material available to the court, for ex parte review. The defendants contend that classified information, appropriately reviewed ex parte, ought to inform the court's resolution of the instant motion. The plaintiffs argue that ex parte consideration of materials, on which the court's ruling on the merits is likely to turn, violates their due process rights. See Abourezk v. Reagan, 785 F.2d 1043, 1060-61 (D.C.Cir.1986) ("The openness of judicial proceedings serves to preserve both the appearance and the reality of fairness in the adjudications of United States courts. It is therefore the firmly held main rule that a court may not dispose of the merits of a case on the basis of ex parte, in camera submissions.") (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). For good reason, our system of justice relies on the adversarial process to bring to the attention of the finder of fact the strengths and deficiencies in parties' litigation postures. "[F]airness can rarely be obtained by secret, one-sided determination of facts decisive of rights." Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Comm. v. McGrath, 341 U.S. 123, 170, 71 S.Ct. 624, 95 L.Ed. 817 (1951) (Frankfurter, J., concurring).

Nevertheless, given that the government's case rests on its ability to demonstrate a compelling state interest in preventing disclosure of information related to a counter-terrorism investigation, the court finds that it is appropriate to consider the ex parte documents for the limited purpose of determining whether to grant the preliminary injunction in a timely manner. See Jifry v. Fed. Aviation Admin., 370 F.3d 1174, 1182 (D.C.Cir.2004) ("[T]he court has inherent authority to review classified materials ex parte, in camera as part of its judicial review function."). While it is "[o]nly in the most extraordinary circumstances [that] precedent countenance[s] court reliance upon ex parte evidence to decide the merits of a dispute," id. at 1061, the instant situation, where the executive branch determines that certain information ought to remain classified in the interests of national security, but is necessary to its defense of this action, constitutes such an extraordinary circumstance. People's Mojahedin Org. of Iran v. Dep't of State, 327 F.3d 1238, 1242 (D.C.Cir.2003) ("[U]nder the separation of powers created by the United States Constitution, the Executive Branch has control and responsibility over access to classified information and has compelling interest in withholding national security information from unauthorized persons in the course of executive business") (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). To find otherwise, under these particular circumstances, might deprive the defendants of their ability to oppose the instant motion.

The court remains concerned, however, about the plaintiffs' ability to participate fully in this case. Currently, neither plaintiffs nor their attorneys possess the requisite security clearance to view the classified evidence that def...

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3 books & journal articles
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