Idaho mom says it’s ‘awesome’ she can sue president

A Coeur d’Alene woman has filed one of six legal challenges over an NSA surveillance program.

THE WASHINGTON POSTJuly 26, 2013 

NSA-LAWSUIT25

Anna and Peter Smith at their Coeur d’Alene home. “This is probably the biggest thing we will ever do,” said Peter, a commercial litigator who filed the suit for his wife.

JEROME A. POLLOS — For The Washington Post

Anna Smith is a mother of two who lives in North Idaho, works the night shift as a nurse and goes to the gym a lot. She rarely follows the news and knows little about the debate over government surveillance and privacy that has rocked Washington in recent weeks.

None of that is stopping her from suing the president of the United States.

Smith is the plaintiff in one of the suits filed over the government’s sweeping collection of telephone and Internet records, and her attorney is her husband.

She doesn’t understand the legal technicalities and worries that the case could distract from her job and parenting duties, but the Idaho native knows how she feels about the prospect of anyone tracking her calls: She’s outraged.

“It’s none of their business what I’m doing: who I call, when I call, how long I talk,” said Smith, 32.

“I think it’s awesome that I have the right to sue the president. I’m just a small-town girl.”

Smith’s lawsuit, filed June 12 in federal court in Idaho, names President Barack Obama “in his official capacity as President of the United States of America,” along with other top officials. Like most of the other cases, it urges a judge to declare unconstitutional a National Security Agency program that scoops up the telephone records of millions of Americans.

The revelation of that program last month by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden — along with his disclosure of other programs — has fueled the growing legal challenges.

But Smith’s suit is in many ways the most unusual of the recent cases, and it arguably best exemplifies ordinary Americans’ anxieties.

LAWSUIT CLAIMS

The other suits were brought by what might be considered heavyweight activists: the American Civil Liberties Union; two digital rights organizations; and Larry Klayman, who founded the conservative group Judicial Watch.

Smith just happens to have a cellphone and a point of view.

Her husband, Peter, 35, has never handled a constitutional or national security case. His co-counsel, Lucas Malek, worked briefly as a prosecutor and is now an Idaho state representative and part-time lawyer.

The case faces major obstacles. Nearly all such lawsuits have been thrown out on national security or other grounds since 2005. And Smith’s suit — one of hundreds the president faces each year — comes with an additional hurdle.

When the British newspaper the Guardian revealed the phone records program, it published a classified court order to Verizon Business Network Services in which the NSA directed the company to turn over customers’ records. Smith is a customer of Verizon Wireless, not Verizon Business Network Services.

Her eight-page lawsuit says she “believes” a similar secret court order went to Verizon Wireless. If Smith cannot prove she was a target of surveillance, her lawsuit will face problems: The Supreme Court in February narrowly dismissed an earlier such case, ruling that those challenging surveillance could only “speculate” about what the government was doing.

“It’s a potential weakness,” Peter Smith acknowledged. “If we’re going to get shut down by a court that says you don’t even have a right to know if the order exists, we’re toast.”

STANDING UP

But the Smiths are pressing their case, saying Anna’s fear that her records are being monitored reflects the feelings that millions of Americans have about the NSA’s activities.

Government officials have argued that the programs have been approved by Congress, overseen by a federal court and operated within rigorous guidelines. They emphasize that, under the records collection program, analysts are not listening to Americans’ calls. And they say the program has proved vital to disrupting terrorist plots.

For the Smiths, that’s not enough.

“It’s kind of the American way to stand up to authority when you feel something is wrong. I don’t live in Russia or China, where I’d probably disappear if I did this,” said Peter Smith. “Why would anyone care about Anna’s phone records? She’s a mom, has two kids, lives in Idaho. She engages in normal mom activities.”

For Anna Smith — a neonatal intensive care nurse in Spokane — those activities have rarely included politics or public policy.

NOT DIALED IN

Even now, she said, she’s not familiar with the concept of “metadata,” the term being widely used to describe the types of information the government is collecting, which includes phone numbers dialed and the length of calls, but not their content.

“I follow the news very little,” Smith said. “I work full time and have two young kids. ... To be honest, I don’t fully understand the law aspect of it and maybe not even the political aspect.”

But her interest was piqued when her husband brought up Snowden’s revelations one night in their home.

“I said, ‘Did you hear about how the government is collecting data on phone calls?’ ” Peter Smith recalled. “ ‘It seems like they’re collecting everyone’s data. They’re probably watching you, Anna.’ ”

Anna Smith said she recalled feeling “disturbed that they’re doing surveillance of people’s cellphones without them knowing it.” She said she uses her iPhone for virtually all of her communication, mostly through text. “It’s pretty much my lifeline,” she said.

The couple continued discussing the issue, until late one night, Peter Smith read an article about the ACLU lawsuit. He decided he could file his own suit and told Anna about it.

“I said, if they’re doing this to you and we could prove it, this would be a lawsuit that you could file,” Peter Smith said. “She was the only person I knew well enough to suggest something like this to.”

Anna Smith texted: “Let’s do it.”

She said she believes that Snowden “broke the law and he has to live with the consequences of that.” But she also said that the information he leaked is scary and that she wants to bring awareness to the issue.

“We’ll see how far it goes, but I have no expectation that it will be easy,” she said of the suit.

Idaho Statesman is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service