SCOTUS Split on Ruling in Favor of Lawsuits Government Says Threaten National Security

The Supreme Court was unsure Monday whether to side with the filers of a class-action religious discrimination lawsuit or the U.S. government, which claims that moving forward with the case could threaten national security, the Associated Press reported. The case revolves around a group of Muslim men from Southern California who allege that the FBI spied on them and hundreds of others after the September 11 attacks.

Lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union and others are representing the group, who said that the alleged surveillance violated their rights and discriminated against them because of their religion. But SCOTUS was charged with deciding whether the government can prevent courts from hearing the case based on its potential to threaten national security by making government information public, the AP reported.

The case was initially dismissed by a lower court after the government claimed that the lawsuit could unveil "state secrets." An appeals court later ruled that the lower court should have looked privately into what the government described as state secrets in order to decide whether the alleged spying was unlawful.

Both the Biden and Trump administrations said that the appeals court's decision is wrong, according to the AP. Some of the justices indicated that they might side with the government, but in what could be a partial win for both parties, also appeared to support sending the case back down to a lower court for further proceedings.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below:

SCOTUS National Security Case
The Biden and Trump administrations are in rare agreement on a case slated to be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court on whether the government can have lawsuits that may threaten national security thrown out. The Supreme Court is seen at dusk October 22, in Washington. J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo

Justice Brett Kavanaugh suggested that sending the case back to a lower court would let issues be "fleshed out and come back" to the Supreme Court later.

Justice Elena Kagan seemed to agree, saying the lower court's decision was "in some important way premised on an incorrect understanding of when dismissal is appropriate in a state secrets case."

Justices Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Neil Gorsuch also asked about sending the case back at various points in the arguments, which lasted two hours.

The case involves a confidential informant, Craig Monteilh, the FBI used from 2006 to 2007. Monteilh pretended to be a new convert to Islam as a way to become part of Southern California's Muslim community.

Monteilh told people he was a fitness consultant, but he was really working as part of a surveillance program known as Operation Flex. Monteilh regularly attended the Islamic Center of Irvine in Orange County and has said that he was told to collect as much information on as many people as possible. He gathered names and phone numbers and secretly recorded thousands of hours of conversations and hundreds of hours of video using a camera concealed in a shirt button.

Ultimately Monteilh's handlers told him to ask about jihad and express a willingness to engage in violence. Those questions caused members of the community to report him to the FBI and other authorities and seek a restraining order against him.

The FBI has acknowledged Monteilh was an informant, and the story was covered in the news media including on the National Public Radio show This American Life.

Three of the men Monteilh allegedly recorded sued seeking damages and asking the government to destroy or return the information it had gathered.

This is the second case the court has heard involving the state secrets privilege since beginning its new term in October. Last month the court heard a case involving a Guantanamo Bay detainee that also involved the states secrets privilege.

Government Surveillance Case
The Supreme Court is set to hear a case Monday about the government’s ability to get lawsuits thrown out of court by claiming they would reveal secrets that threaten national security. An FBI seal is seen on a podium before a news conference at the agency's headquarters in Washington on June 14, 2018. Jose Luis Magana/AP Photo