SALT LAKE CITY – The National Security Agency asked a judge Thursday to dismiss a lawsuit from a former Salt Lake City mayor who says the agency conducted a mass warrantless surveillance program during the 2002 Winter Olympics.
The NSA argues the claims are implausible speculation about a program that may never have existed, but the government faced pointed questions from U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby.
"These plaintiffs allege willful, intentional, unlawful conduct in violation of constitutional rights by our elected representatives at the highest levels and by our government," Shelby said. A courtroom might be the only place where the matter can be addressed, he said.
Salt Lake City attorney Rocky Anderson, who was the mayor at the time of the games, said he learned about the program from a 2013 newspaper report and has since confirmed it with an unnamed source who worked for the NSA during the Olympics.
"They have not denied these allegations. They just somehow say they are implausible," he said.
The lawsuit filed in August alleges the NSA collected the contents of text messages and emails and metadata about every phone call in in the Salt Lake City area before and during the games that took place less than six months after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
It says then-President George W. Bush and then-Vice President Dick Cheney authorized the program, and they are also named as defendants in the case. They haven't responded to the claims and won't be required to unless Shelby allows the lawsuit to go forward. He didn't immediately rule Thursday.
The six plaintiffs include Republican Utah lawmaker Howard Stephenson, who said he signed onto the lawsuit because he's concerned about citizens' privacy. "We shouldn't look the other way and ignore those laws just because there's a national security issue," he said.
Anderson served as a Democratic mayor of Utah's capital city from 2000 to 2008. He was an outspoken leader who led a protest of the Iraq War during Bush's 2007 visit to Salt Lake City.