STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now, Hurricane Sandy has shut down the federal government here in Washington, but not - at least for today - the United States Supreme Court, which today considers a challenge to a federal law that authorizes large-scale, electronic surveillance of international phone calls and emails. Here's NPR's Nina Totenberg.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Congress first passed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in 1978, to prevent the kind of warrantless surveillance of Americans that had been uncovered by congressional investigators. The law, known as FISA, required the government to obtain a warrant from a special intelligence court, when conducting electronic surveillance of individuals abroad that could pick up communications with people in the U.S.

After 9-11, the Bush administration secretly circumvented the law; and when its warrantless wiretapping was disclosed, the administration proposed legislation to quell the resulting furor. In 2008, Congress passed a new law that loosened the reins considerably. It limited the FISA court's supervision, did away with the previous requirement for individual targeting, and allowed the government to monitor large swaths of people.

The new law was challenged in court by Amnesty International and other human rights groups, as well as journalists and lawyers who represent detainees. The challengers noted that they routinely have conversations with people overseas - for example, lawyers regularly talk to the families of detainees, witnesses in detainee cases and investigators overseas. These conversations, they say, almost certainly have been monitored by the U.S. government's surveillance program. And they contend that by authorizing what they call dragnet surveillance without individual warrants, FISA violates the Constitution's ban on unreasonable searches.

Today's Supreme Court arguments, however, don't get to that issue. Instead, the court is focusing on a threshold question - whether the case can be brought at all. The government contends that the groups challenging the law have no legal standing to be in court because they cannot show, with certainty, that their conversations were monitored. Representing the challengers in court today, the ACLU's Jameel Jaffer will tell the justices that such certainty cannot be proved with a secret program.

JAMEEL JAFFER: The government's standing argument amounts to a Catch-22. Their argument is, you can challenge the statute if you can show that your own communications have been acquired under it, but we can't tell you if your own communications have been acquired under it.

TOTENBERG: A federal appeals court in New York agreed with the challengers; that they've have suffered a concrete injury that justifies allowing the case to go forward. That court said that based on the challengers' reasonable fear of being monitored, they have largely abandoned international phone and email communications; and have spent time and money to travel overseas, to meet with people in person, in order to be free from government surveillance.

Todd Hinnen, who served as assistant attorney general for national security in the Obama administration, concedes that proving you've been monitored under FISA, is next to impossible.

TODD HINNEN: Because of the secret nature of the activity, it's very difficult for a plaintiff to make specific and concrete allegations.

TOTENBERG: But, he adds, in an age of terrorism, Congress sought to give the intelligence community greater latitude under the new statute.

HINNEN: Congress has consciously limited the circumstances under which it can be challenged.

TOTENBERG: Basically, the government argues that the civil liberties protections in the law are internal - for example, requiring the attorney general and national intelligence director to periodically assess the steps taken to minimize the effect of the surveillance on U.S. citizens. But, the government argues, the law does not contemplate a direct challenge in the courts. Again, Todd Hinnen.

HINNEN: It's a statute that governs foreign intelligence practices, targeting foreign citizens overseas. These are subjects that have traditionally been viewed as the very core of Congress' and the executive branch's prerogative.

JAFFER: If the court accepts that argument, they will be accepting that this statue is immune to the kind of judicial review that we generally think federal statutes ought to be subject to.

TOTENBERG: The ACLU's Jameel Jaffer.

JAFFER: What we're arguing about right now, is not the constitutionality of the law but rather, whether we have the right to challenge the constitutionality of the law.

TOTENBERG: It may seem like a technicality, but it's the whole ball of wax. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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