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Judge Won’t Dismiss Olympic Spying Lawsuit

— January 13, 2017

2016 was not a good year to be a spy.

Intelligence-gathering organizations have had a lot on their plate since the primary season ended and the general election began. Allegations of Russian incursions into American cyberspace began to swirl, as damaging leaks targeted at Democrats trickled out across the internet. With so much on their plate, spies are likely having a hard time dealing with damage in the present-day, let alone that which was dealt over a decade ago. Unfortunately for the NSA, there will be no breaks to save them from the latest disgrace. On Tuesday, a Salt Lake City judge refused to dismiss a lawsuit initiated by the city’s former mayor, with the plaintiffs claiming that the agency had tapped phones and intercepted data on a massive scale during the 2002 Olympic Games.

Filed last year by Rocky Anderson, the former mayor-cum-lawyer, the suit purports that the NSA had collected information from tens of thousands of calls, texts, and e-mails in 2002. Anderson doesn’t believe the action, which potentially monitored all communications in Salt Lake City during the Games, was sanctioned by law or supported with warrants. Nobody was aware that such a surveillance program had even existed, up until the Wall Street Journal published an exposé in 2013.

The NSA, on its part, denies partaking in any unconstitutional wrongdoing. National Security Agency attorneys and representatives challenged Anderson’s lawsuit on several different fronts. Firstly, they raised the question of how plausible it would be to monitor, record, and store the communications data of two-hundred thousand people. US District Judge Robert Shelby rejected their motion for dismissal on that point, as well as another seeking to bury the case due to its age. George W. Bush and Dick Cheney had also been named as defendants, adding another layer of complexity to what’s beginning to amount to an almost fantastical trial.

Trying to fathom how any single agency might be able to spy on all the inhabitants of a mid-sized city is no easy task, and one which will probably be crucial in reaching a verdict. The Wall Street Journal speculated in its 2013 piece that the NSA had the capability to monitor “roughly 75% of all US Internet traffic in the hunt for foreign intelligence.” Certainly there is no doubt that the organization possesses the tools necessary to snoop into the private lives of everyday Americans. Edward Snowden’s infamous (or appreciated, depending on the perspective) document dump into WikiLeaks described how the reach of espionage technology can tap underwater fiber optic lines and hijack cellular devices. An investigation spearheaded by Der Spiegel came to the conclusion that listening posts set up at the United States Embassy in Berlin monitored communications across the government quarter.

Perhaps, if the NSA were so inclined, it could field the manpower necessary to eavesdrop on Salt Lake City during its tenure as an Olympic host. September 11th was still fresh in the minds of many; a high-profile, international venue with events broadcast around the world would make a tempting target to any would-be terrorists. Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda were still the major players of tribal Pakistan and Taliban-held Afghan provinces.

Rocky Anderson has also made friends in the House of Representatives. Howard Stephenson, a Utah Republican, signed on as a plaintiff after expressing concern for the privacy of the citizens of his state. President-elect Donald Trump’s increasingly antagonistic stance against intelligence-gathering organizations might not mean good news for the NSA, both inside the courtroom and out.

Former Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson; image courtesy of Al Hartmann, Salt Lake City Tribune Files
Former Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson; image courtesy of Al Hartmann, Salt Lake City Tribune Files

What remains to be seen is how far any fact-finding mission can go without running into a wall of resistance from the National Security Agency. Whether any mass surveillance program was carried out or not, the legal battle is likely to be lengthy. The NSA still maintains that Anderson’s lawsuit is based on speculation “fanciful and not worthy of belief.” Frankly, there seems little evidence currently available to the public which would substantiate, beyond any reasonable doubt, allegations of sweeping, city-wide surveillance.

However, the consequences and questions brought about by a duel between a former mayor and a large government organization are liable to overlooked as Trump transitions to the White House. The media is – somewhat understandably – inclined to go along with the mainstream in staring down the crises and drama of a new administration, rather than poking their noses into the happenings of a decade long-gone.


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