Wikimedia Foundation v. NSA/CSS
PUBLISHED AUTHORED OPINION filed. Originating case number: 1:15-cv-00662-TSE. . [15-2560]
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UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS
FOR THE FOURTH CIRCUIT
WIKIMEDIA FOUNDATION; NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF CRIMINAL
DEFENSE ATTORNEYS; HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH; PEN AMERICAN
CENTER; GLOBAL FUND FOR WOMEN; THE NATION MAGAZINE; THE
RUTHERFORD INSTITUTE; WASHINGTON OFFICE ON LATIN AMERICA;
AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL USA,
Plaintiffs − Appellants,
NATIONAL SECURITY AGENCY/CENTRAL SECURITY SERVICE;
ADMIRAL MICHAEL S. ROGERS, in his official capacity as Director of the
National Security Agency and Chief of the Central Security Service; OFFICE OF
THE DIRECTOR OF NATIONAL INTELLIGENCE; DANIEL R. COATS, in his
official capacity as Director of National Intelligence; DEPARTMENT OF
JUSTICE; JEFFERSON B. SESSIONS III, in his official capacity as Attorney
General of the United States,
Defendants – Appellees.
COMMITTEE FOR FREEDOM OF THE PRESS; THE THOMAS JEFFERSON
CENTER FOR THE PROTECTION OF FREE EXPRESSION; AMERICAN
SOCIETY OF NEWS EDITORS; ASSOCIATION OF ALTERNATIVE
NEWSMEDIA; FIRST AMENDMENT COALITION; FIRST LOOK MEDIA,
INC.; FREE PRESS; FREEDOM OF THE PRESS FOUNDATION;
GATEHOUSE MEDIA; INTERNATIONAL DOCUMENTARY ASSOCIATION;
INVESTIGATIVE REPORTERS AND EDITORS, INCORPORATED;
INVESTIGATIVE REPORTING WORKSHOP AT AMERICAN UNIVERSITY;
THE MEDIA CONSORTIUM; NATIONAL PRESS PHOTOGRAPHERS
ASSOCIATION; NORTH JERSEY MEDIA GROUP, INCORPORATED;
ONLINE NEWS ASSOCIATION; RADIO TELEVISION DIGITAL NEWS
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ASSOCIATION; REPORTERS WITHOUT BORDERS; TULLY CENTER FOR
FREE SPEECH; UNITED STATES JUSTICE FOUNDATION; FREE SPEECH
DEFENSE AND EDUCATION FUND; FREE SPEECH COALITION;
WESTERN JOURNALISM CENTER; GUN OWNERS OF AMERICA, INC.;
GUN OWNERS FOUNDATION; DOWNSIZE DC FOUNDATION;
EDUCATION FUND; INSTITUTE ON THE CONSTITUTION; POLICY
ANALYSIS CENTER; LAW PROFESSORS; ELECTRONIC FRONTIER
FOUNDATION; FIRST AMENDMENT LEGAL SCHOLARS,
Amici Supporting Appellants.
Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Maryland, at Baltimore.
T. S. Ellis, III, Senior District Judge. (1:15−cv−00662−TSE)
Argued: December 8, 2016
Decided: May 23, 2017
Before MOTZ and DIAZ, Circuit Judges, and DAVIS, Senior Circuit Judge.
Affirmed in part, vacated in part, and remanded by published opinion. Judge Diaz wrote
the opinion, in which Judge Motz joined and in which Senior Judge Davis joined in part.
Senior Judge Davis wrote a separate opinion dissenting in part.
ARGUED: Patrick Christopher Toomey, AMERICAN CIVIL LIBERTIES UNION
FOUNDATION, New York, New York, for Appellants. Catherine H. Dorsey, UNITED
STATES DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE, Washington, D.C., for Appellees. ON BRIEF:
Jameel Jaffer, Alexander Abdo, Ashley Gorski, AMERICAN CIVIL LIBERTIES
UNION FOUNDATION, New York, New York; Deborah A. Jeon, David R. Rocah,
AMERICAN CIVIL LIBERTIES UNION FOUNDATION OF MARYLAND,
Baltimore, Maryland; Charles S. Sims, David A. Munkittrick, PROSKAUER ROSE LLP,
New York, New York, for Appellants. Benjamin C. Mizer, Principal Deputy Assistant
Attorney General, Douglas N. Letter, H. Thomas Byron III, Michael Shih, Civil Division,
UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE, Washington, D.C.; Rod J. Rosenstein,
United States Attorney, OFFICE OF THE UNITED STATES ATTORNEY, Baltimore,
Maryland, for Appellees. Jennifer Stisa Granick, Director of Civil Liberties, Center for
Internet and Society, STANFORD LAW SCHOOL, Stanford, California; Matthew J.
Craig, SHAPIRO ARATO LLP, New York, New York, for Amicus Computer Scientists
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and Technologists. Margot E. Kaminski, Assistant Professor of Law, Moritz College of
Law, THE OHIO STATE UNIVERSITY, Columbus, Ohio; Chelsea J. Crawford, Joshua
R. Treem, BROWN, GOLDSTEIN & LEVY, LLP, Baltimore, Maryland, for Amicus
First Amendment Legal Scholars. J. Joshua Wheeler, Thomas Jefferson Center for the
Protection of Free Expression and First Amendment Clinic, THE UNIVERSITY OF
VIRGINIA SCHOOL OF LAW, Charlottesville, Virginia; Bruce D. Brown, Gregg P.
Leslie, Hannah Bloch-Wehba, REPORTERS COMMITTEE FOR FREEDOM OF THE
PRESS, Washington, D.C.; Peter Scheer, FIRST AMENDMENT COALITION, San
Rafael, California; Lynn Oberlander, General Counsel, Media Operations, FIRST LOOK
MEDIA, INC., New York, New York; Matthew F. Wood, FREE PRESS, Washington,
D.C.; Polly Grunfeld Sack, SVP, General Counsel and Secretary, GATEHOUSE
MEDIA, LLC, Pittsford, New York; Jennifer A. Borg, General Counsel, NORTH
JERSEY MEDIA GROUP, INCORPORATED, Woodland Park, New Jersey, for Amici
Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, The Thomas Jefferson Center for the
Protection of Free Expression, American Society of News Editors, Association of
Alternative Newsmedia, First Amendment Coalition, First Look Media, Inc., Free Press,
Freedom of the Press Foundation, Gatehouse Media, International Documentary
Association, Investigative Reporters and Editors, Incorporated, Investigative Reporting
Workshop at American University, The Media Consortium, National Press Photographers
Association, North Jersey Media Group, Incorporated, Online News Association, Radio
Television Digital News Association, Reporters Without Borders, and Tully Center for
Free Speech. Kevin M. Goldberg, FLETCHER, HEALD & HILDRETH, PLC,
Arlington, Virginia, for Amici American Society of News Editors and Association of
Alternative Newsmedia. Marcia Hofmann, ZEITGEIST LAW PC, San Francisco,
California, for Amicus Freedom of the Press Foundation. Mickey H. Osterreicher,
Buffalo, New York, for Amicus National Press Photographers Association. Laura R.
Handman, Alison Schary, Washington, D.C., Thomas R. Burke, DAVIS WRIGHT
TREMAINE LLP, San Francisco, California, for Amicus Online News Association.
Kathleen A. Kirby, WILEY REIN LLP, Washington, D.C., for Amicus Radio Television
Digital News Association.
Michael Connelly, UNITED STATES JUSTICE
FOUNDATION, Ramona, California, for Amicus United States Justice Foundation.
Robert J. Olson, Herbert W. Titus, William J. Olson, Jeremiah L. Morgan, WILLIAM J.
OLSON, P.C., Vienna, Virginia, for Amici United States Justice Foundation, Free Speech
Defense and Education Fund, Free Speech Coalition, Western Journalism Center, Gun
Owners of America, Inc., Gun Owners Foundation, Downsize DC Foundation,
DownsizeDC.org, Conservative Legal Defense and Education Fund, Institute on the
Constitution, and Policy Analysis Center. Adam Steinman, Professor of Law,
UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA SCHOOL OF LAW, Tuscaloosa, Alabama, for Amicus
Law Professors. Sophia Cope, Mark Rumold, Andrew Crocker, Jaime Williams,
ELECTRONIC FRONTIER FOUNDATION, San Francisco, California, for Amicus
Electronic Frontier Foundation.
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DIAZ, Circuit Judge:
The Wikimedia Foundation and eight other organizations appeal the dismissal of
their complaint challenging Upstream surveillance, an electronic surveillance program
operated by the National Security Agency (the “NSA”). The district court, relying on the
discussion of speculative injury from Clapper v. Amnesty International USA, 133 S. Ct.
1138 (2013), held that the allegations in the complaint were too speculative to establish
Article III standing. We conclude that Clapper’s analysis of speculative injury does not
control this case, since the central allegations here are not speculative. Accordingly, as
for Wikimedia, we vacate and remand because it makes allegations sufficient to survive a
facial challenge to standing. As for the other Plaintiffs, we affirm because the complaint
does not contain enough well-pleaded facts entitled to the presumption of truth to
establish their standing.
Before diving into the details of Plaintiffs’ complaint, we provide an overview of
the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (“FISA”), 50 U.S.C. § 1801 et seq., the statute
from which the government derives its authority to conduct Upstream surveillance.
Congress enacted FISA in 1978 to regulate electronic surveillance undertaken to
gather foreign intelligence information. David S. Kris & J. Douglas Wilson, National
Security Investigations and Prosecutions § 3:8 (2d ed.), Westlaw (database updated Aug.
2016) (hereinafter Kris & Wilson); see also 50 U.S.C. § 1801 (defining electronic
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FISA created two specialized courts—the Foreign Intelligence
Surveillance Court (the “FISC”), from which the government generally must obtain
authorization before conducting electronic surveillance, and the Foreign Intelligence
Surveillance Court of Review, which has jurisdiction to review the denial of a FISA
application for electronic surveillance. Kris & Wilson § 5:1. As originally enacted,
FISA required the government to demonstrate probable cause to believe that the target of
its surveillance was “a foreign power or an agent of a foreign power,” and that the facility
or place at which surveillance would be directed was “being used, or is about to be used,
by a foreign power or an agent of a foreign power.” 50 U.S.C. § 1805(a)(2); see also
Kris & Wilson § 7:2.
“Until 2008, FISA applied only to investigative conduct inside the United States.”
Kris & Wilson § 4:2. That changed through the FISA Amendments Act of 2008, which
authorized the government to acquire foreign-intelligence information by targeting for up
to one year non-U.S. persons reasonably believed to be abroad. See 50 U.S.C. § 1881a.
FISA Section 702, 50 U.S.C. § 1881a, sets forth the process for obtaining that authority.
Generally, the Attorney General and the Director of National Intelligence initiate
the process by submitting a “certification” regarding the proposed surveillance to the
FISC for approval. Id. § 1881a(g)(1)(A). That certification must attest, inter alia, that:
(1) procedures are in place “that . . . are reasonably designed” to ensure that
an acquisition is “limited to targeting persons reasonably believed to be
located outside” the United States; (2) minimization procedures adequately
restrict the acquisition, retention, and dissemination of nonpublic
information about unconsenting U.S. persons . . .; (3) guidelines have been
adopted to ensure compliance with targeting limits and the Fourth
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Amendment; and (4) the procedures and guidelines . . . comport with the
Clapper, 133 S. Ct. at 1145 (quoting 50 U.S.C. § 1881a(g)(2)).
The FISC reviews the certification to ensure that it contains the statutorily required
elements and has targeting and minimization procedures that are both consistent with the
Fourth Amendment and are “reasonably designed” to meet certain requirements. Id. In
particular, the FISC must find that the targeting procedures are “reasonably designed” to:
(i) ensure that acquisition “is limited to targeting persons reasonably believed to be
located outside the United States,” and (ii) “prevent the intentional acquisition of” wholly
domestic communications. 50 U.S.C. § 1881a(i)(2)(B). The FISC must also find that the
minimization procedures are “reasonably designed in light of the purpose and technique
of the particular surveillance, to minimize the acquisition and retention, and prohibit the
dissemination, of nonpublicly available information concerning unconsenting United
States persons consistent with the need of the United States to obtain, produce, and
disseminate foreign intelligence information.” Id. § 1801(h)(1); see id. § 1881a(i)(2)(C)
(referring to § 1801(h)).
Section 702 prohibits the intentional targeting of “any person known at the time of
acquisition to be located in the United States,” id. § 1881a(b), but allows the government
to intercept communications between a U.S. person inside the country and a foreigner
abroad targeted by intelligence officials, see id. § 1881a(a)–(b); see also Kris & Wilson
§ 17:5. Furthermore, surveillance under Section 702 may be conducted for purposes
other than counterterrorism—the statute defines “foreign intelligence information” to
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mean, among other things, information that relates to “the conduct of the foreign affairs
of the United States,” 50 U.S.C. § 1801(e)(2)(B)—and the government need not identify
“the specific facilities, places, premises, or property at which” it will direct surveillance,
id. § 1881a(g)(4).
The absence of particularity and probable cause requirements in Section 702
surveillance allows the government to monitor the communications of thousands of
individuals and groups under a single FISC Order. See Office of the Director of National
Intelligence, Calendar Year 2014 Statistical Transparency Report 1–2 (2015) (stating
that in 2014 the government used its authority pursuant to Section 702 to target an
estimated 92,707 persons, groups, and entities under one FISC Order). 1 Furthermore, the
minimization procedures allow the government to retain communications—including
those of U.S. persons—if the government concludes that they contain “foreign
intelligence” information. See Kris & Wilson §§ 9:5, 17:5.
The government has acknowledged that it conducts two forms of surveillance
under Section 702—PRISM and Upstream. See Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight
Board, Report on the Surveillance Program Operated Pursuant to Section 702 of the
Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act 7 (2014) (hereinafter PCLOB Report). 2
Upstream is at issue here. Though the government has disclosed some information about
Plaintiffs’ complaint incorporates this document.
Plaintiffs’ complaint incorporates this report.
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Upstream, most technical details of the surveillance process remain classified. See Jewel
v. Nat’l Sec. Agency, 810 F.3d 622, 627 (9th Cir. 2015).
In June 2015, Plaintiffs—educational, legal, human rights, and media
organizations—filed their first amended complaint wherein they ask for, among other
things, a declaration that Upstream surveillance violates the First and Fourth
Amendments, an order permanently enjoining the NSA from conducting Upstream
surveillance, and an order directing the NSA “to purge all records of Plaintiffs’
communications in their possession obtained pursuant to Upstream surveillance.” J.A.
Plaintiffs make two central allegations.
First, in what we refer to as the
Wikimedia Allegation, Wikimedia alleges that “the sheer volume of [its] communications
makes it virtually certain that the NSA has intercepted, copied, and reviewed at least
some of [its] communications.” 3 J.A. 46. Second, in what we refer to as the Dragnet
Allegation, all nine Plaintiffs allege that in the course of conducting Upstream
surveillance the NSA is “intercepting, copying, and reviewing substantially all” textbased communications entering and leaving the United States, including their own. J.A.
After setting forth supporting background relevant to each, we describe the
Wikimedia and Dragnet Allegations.
Though all nine Plaintiffs made this allegation, only Wikimedia pursues it on
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Plaintiffs allege that “Upstream surveillance involves the NSA’s seizing and
searching the [I]nternet communications of U.S. citizens and residents en masse as those
communications travel across the [I]nternet ‘backbone’ in the United States.” J.A. 40.
“The [I]nternet backbone is the network of high-capacity cables, switches, and routers
[administered by telecommunications-service providers] that facilitates both domestic
and international communication via the [I]nternet.”
It includes “the
approximately 49 international submarine cables that carry [I]nternet communications
into and out of the United States and that land at approximately 43 different points within
the country.” J.A. 42.
The NSA performs Upstream surveillance by first identifying a target and then
identifying “selectors” for that target. Selectors are the specific means by which the
target communicates, such as e-mail addresses or telephone numbers. Selectors cannot
be keywords (e.g., “bomb”) or names of targeted individuals (e.g., “Bin Laden”).
telecommunications-service providers. Those providers must assist the government in
communications are those that contain a tasked selector in their content, but are not to or
from the target. “For instance, a communication between two third parties might be
acquired because it contains a targeted email address in the body of the communication.”
PCLOB Report at 119.
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We note an important distinction between Internet transactions and Internet
While Upstream surveillance “is intended to acquire Internet
communications, it does so through the acquisition of Internet transactions.” PCLOB
Report at 39. An example illustrates the point. When an individual sends an email on the
Internet, the message is broken up into one or more “data packets” which are transmitted
across the Internet backbone to their destination and, upon arrival, reassembled by the
recipient’s computer to reconstruct the communication. The individual data packets
generated by a single email can take “different routes [across the backbone] to their
PCLOB Report at 125.
Relatedly, when two people
communicate, the data packets from the target can take a different path along the
backbone than the data packets to the target. “The government describes an Internet
‘transaction’ as ‘a complement of packets traversing the Internet that together may be
understood by a device on the Internet and, where applicable, rendered in an intelligible
form to the user of that device.’” Redacted, 2011 WL 10945618, at *9 n.23 (FISA Ct.
Oct. 3, 2011) (quoting a government submission to the FISC). 4 An Internet transaction
can comprise one or many discrete communications.
“To identify and acquire Internet transactions associated with the Section 702tasked selectors on the Internet backbone, Internet transactions are first filtered to
eliminate potential domestic transactions, and then are screened to capture only
transactions containing a tasked selector. Unless transactions pass both these screens,
Plaintiffs’ complaint incorporates this FISC opinion.
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they are not ingested into government databases.” PCLOB Report at 37. “If a single
discrete communication within [a multi-communication transaction] is to, from, or about
a Section 702-tasked selector, and at least one end of the transaction is foreign, the NSA
will acquire the entire [multi-communication transaction].” PCLOB Report at 39. Once
acquired, communications are subject to FISC-approved minimization procedures. The
NSA’s minimization procedures, for example, limit the types of queries that analysts can
conduct across data sets of Section 702-acquired information.
Plaintiffs allege that Upstream surveillance works in practice as follows. First, the
NSA copies “substantially all international text-based communications—and many
domestic ones—flowing across certain high-capacity cables, switches, and routers” by
“[u]sing surveillance devices installed at key access points along the [I]nternet
backbone.” J.A. 43. Second, it “attempts to filter out and discard some wholly domestic
communications,” though that effort “is incomplete.” J.A. 43. Third, it reviews the full
content of the copied communications for targeted selectors, including IP addresses. J.A.
43. Finally, it “retains [and with few restrictions analyzes] all communications that
contain selectors associated with its targets, as well as those that happen to be bundled
with them in transit.” J.A. 44.
Wikimedia asserts that the NSA is intercepting, copying, and reviewing at least
some of its communications in the course of Upstream surveillance, “even if the NSA
conducts Upstream surveillance on only a single [I]nternet backbone link.” J.A. 49.
Wikimedia, “the operator of one of the most-visited websites in the world,” alleges that it
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“engages in more than one trillion international communications each year, with
individuals who are located in virtually every country on earth.” J.A. 56. According to
Wikimedia, Upstream surveillance implicates three categories of its communications:
(1) communications with its community members; (2) internal “log” communications,
which include users’ IP addresses and the URLs of webpages sought by users; and
(3) communications between its staff and individuals around the world. J.A. 55–56.
Wikimedia further alleges that “[g]iven the relatively small number of
international chokepoints,” 5 the volume of its communications, and the geographical
diversity of the people with whom it communicates, its “communications almost certainly
traverse every international backbone link connecting the United States with the rest of
the world.” J.A. 47–48. And, Wikimedia alleges, “in order for the NSA to reliably
obtain communications to, from, or about its targets in the way it has described, the
government must be copying and reviewing all the international text-based
communications that travel across a given link.” J.A. 48.
That last allegation is so, says Wikimedia, because “as a technical matter, the
government cannot know beforehand which communications will contain selectors
associated with its targets, and therefore it must copy and review all international textbased communications transiting [a] circuit in order to identify those of interest.” J.A.
48. That is because data packets that constitute a communication “travel independently
By “chokepoint,” Wikimedia refers to the 49 international submarine cables and
the “limited number” of terrestrial cables that carry Internet communications into and out
of the United States. J.A. 47–48.
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of one another, intermingled with packets of other communications in the stream of
data,” and “the packets of interest cannot be segregated from other, unrelated packets in
advance.” J.A. 49. Thus, the NSA must “copy all such packets traversing a given
backbone link, so that it can reassemble and review the transiting communications.” J.A.
Tying these allegations together, Wikimedia asserts that if the NSA is monitoring
a single [I]nternet backbone link, then the NSA is intercepting, copying, and reviewing at
least some of Wikimedia’s communications. According to Wikimedia, “the NSA has
confirmed that it conducts Upstream surveillance at more than one point along the
[I]nternet backbone.” J.A. 49. In addition to the PCLOB Report’s confirmation of the
program’s existence, Wikimedia points to a purported NSA slide which shows that a
single telecommunications-service provider is facilitating Upstream surveillance at
“seven major international chokepoints in the United States” and a purported NSA
document which states that the NSA is expending significant resources to “create
collection/processing capabilities at many of the chokepoints operated by U.S.
providers.” J.A. 50–51.
Wikimedia has “an acute privacy interest in its communications” because its
“mission and existence depend on its ability to ensure that readers and editors can explore
and contribute to [its websites] privately when they choose to do so.” J.A. 59–60. It has,
in response to Upstream surveillance, taken burdensome steps to protect “the privacy of
its communications and the confidentiality of the information it thereby receives.” J.A.
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Among other things, Wikimedia has “self-censor[ed] communications or
forgo[ne] electronic communications altogether.” J.A. 64.
Finally, the first amended complaint alleges that “even if one assumes a
0.00000001% chance . . . of the NSA copying and reviewing any particular
communication, the odds of the government copying and reviewing at least one of the
99.9999999999%.” J.A. 46–47. This is an extension of the allegation that Wikimedia
engages in more than one trillion international communications each year.
In the Dragnet Allegation, Plaintiffs say that “given the way the government has
described Upstream surveillance, it has a strong incentive to intercept communications at
as many backbone chokepoints as possible.” J.A. 49. Thus, “[i]f the government’s aim is
to ‘comprehensively’ and ‘reliably’ obtain communications to, from, and about targets
scattered around the world, it must conduct Upstream surveillance at many different
backbone chokepoints.” J.A. 50.
Plaintiffs allege that the nature of online communication, including that data
packets to a target can take different routes than data packets from a target, makes this
conclusion “especially true.” J.A. 50. They also incorporate into their complaint a New
York Times article asserting that the NSA “is temporarily copying and then sifting
through the contents of what is apparently most e-mails and other text-based
communications that cross the border.” J.A. 51.
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Furthermore, Plaintiffs often communicate with individuals whom the NSA is
likely to target through Upstream surveillance, and “[a] significant amount of the
information that [they] exchange over the [I]nternet is ‘foreign intelligence information.’”
J.A. 52. “Because of ongoing government surveillance, including Upstream surveillance,
Plaintiffs have had to take burdensome and sometimes costly measures to” protect “the
confidentiality of their sensitive information.” J.A. 52. Upstream surveillance compels
them to censor their own communications and, in some instances, to forgo electronic
Finally, Joshua Dratel, a member of Plaintiff National Association of Criminal
Defense Lawyers, also challenges Upstream surveillance. One of Dratel’s clients “has
received notice of [Section 702 surveillance], and [Dratel] previously represented a client
in another case where officials have told Congress that the government used [Section 702
surveillance] in the course of its investigation.” J.A. 68–69.
The government moved to dismiss for lack of standing and submitted evidence,
including declarations by Robert Lee and Alan Salzberg. The Lee Declaration challenges
Plaintiffs’ assertion that, as a technical matter, the NSA must be copying all data packets
that traverse a given backbone link.
The Salzberg Declaration attacks Plaintiffs’
probability calculation that there’s a greater than 99.9999999999% chance that the NSA
is copying and reviewing their communications.
The district court, relying on Clapper, held that Plaintiffs had failed to establish
standing because their allegations “depend on suppositions and speculation, with no basis
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in fact, about how the NSA implements Upstream surveillance.” J.A. 190. The court
characterized the government’s motion as a facial challenge, and thus did not consider
either declaration. Because so much of the district court’s opinion depends on Clapper,
we summarize that case first.
In Clapper, plaintiffs (including six of the nine Plaintiffs here, but not including
Dratel or Wikimedia) lodged a facial challenge to Section 702 on the day that the law
went into effect, seeking declaratory and injunctive relief. 133 S. Ct. at 1145–46. They
alleged that their work required them to “engage in sensitive and sometimes privileged
telephone and e-mail communications with . . . individuals located abroad” who were
“likely targets of surveillance under” Section 702. Id. at 1145. Plaintiffs had two
separate theories of Article III standing: (1) there was an “objectively reasonable
likelihood” that their communications would be intercepted in the future pursuant to
Section 702 surveillance, and (2) they were forced to undertake costly and burdensome
measures to avoid a substantial risk of surveillance. Id. at 1146. They did not, however,
have “actual knowledge of the Government’s [Section 702] targeting practices.” Id. at
The Supreme Court held that neither injury established standing at the summary
The theory of standing based on interception of communications
“relie[d] on a highly attenuated chain of possibilities, [which did] not satisfy the
requirement that threatened injury must be certainly impending.” Id. at 1147–48. The
Court broke the speculative chain into five parts:
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(1) the Government will decide to target the communications of non-U.S.
persons with whom [plaintiffs] communicate; (2) in doing so, the
Government will choose to invoke its authority under [Section 702] rather
than utilizing another method of surveillance; (3) the Article III judges who
serve on the [FISC] will conclude that the Government’s proposed
surveillance procedures satisfy [Section 702’s] many safeguards and are
consistent with the Fourth Amendment; (4) the Government will succeed in
intercepting the communications of [plaintiffs’] contacts; and (5)
[plaintiffs] will be parties to the particular communications that the
Id. at 1148.
“[A]t the summary judgment stage,” the Court noted, plaintiffs “can no longer rest
on mere allegations [to establish standing], but must set forth by affidavit or other
evidence specific facts.”
Id. at 1148–49 (alteration and internal quotation marks
omitted). The Clapper plaintiffs, however, had no “specific facts demonstrating that the
communications of their foreign contacts w[ould] be targeted.” Id. at 1149.
The assertion of harm based on measures taken to avoid surveillance also didn’t
suffice. Because “the harm [plaintiffs] s[ought] to avoid [wa]s not certainly impending,”
the Court explained, they couldn’t “manufacture standing merely by inflicting harm on
themselves based on their fears of hypothetical future harm.” Id. at 1151. In other
words, plaintiffs had failed to show that “[a]ny ongoing injuries” they were suffering
were “fairly traceable” to Section 702 surveillance. Id. The Court suggested, however,
that a lawyer who represented a target of Section 702 surveillance might have standing.
Id. at 1154.
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Applying these principles, the district court in this case reasoned that while
more is known about the nature and capabilities of NSA surveillance than
was known at the time of Clapper, . . . no more is known about whether
Upstream surveillance actually intercepts all or substantially all
international text-based Internet communications, including plaintiffs’
communications. . . . Indeed, plaintiffs’ reliance on the government’s
capacity and motivation to collect substantially all international text-based
Internet communications is precisely the sort of speculative reasoning
foreclosed by Clapper.
J.A. 192. The court supported that conclusion with two observations relevant here: (1) it
is unclear whether the NSA is “using [its] surveillance equipment to its full potential” to
intercept “all communications passing through” chokepoints upon which the NSA has
installed surveillance equipment, and (2) “the fact that all NSA surveillance practices
must survive FISC review . . . suggests that the NSA is not using its surveillance
equipment to its full potential.” J.A. 190–91.
The district court also rejected the argument that Clapper “does not control here
because plaintiffs are different from the Clapper plaintiffs.” J.A. 194. The court focused
on Dratel and Wikimedia. With respect to Dratel, the court concluded that the allegations
failed to “plausibly establish that the information gathered from the two instances of
Section 702 surveillance was the product of Upstream surveillance,” and that it “appears
substantially more likely that PRISM collection was used in [those] cases.” J.A. 195.
As for Wikimedia, the court found that “the statistical analysis on which the
argument rests [(i.e., the probability calculation that there’s a greater than
99.9999999999% chance that the NSA is copying and reviewing Wikimedia’s
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communications)] is incomplete and riddled with assumptions,” and that “[l]ogically
antecedent to plaintiffs’ flawed statistical analysis are plaintiffs’ speculative claims about
Upstream surveillance based on limited knowledge of Upstream surveillance’s technical
features and ‘strategic imperatives.’” 6 See J.A. 197–99.
From the district court’s dismissal of their complaint for lack of standing,
We review the district court’s decision de novo, Columbia Gas Transmission
Corp. v. Drain, 237 F.3d 366, 369 (4th Cir. 2001), and proceed as follows. First, we lay
out the framework for deciding whether a plaintiff has established standing at the motionto-dismiss stage.
Then, we review the Wikimedia and Dragnet Allegations to see
whether either establishes standing. We conclude that the Wikimedia Allegation does
and the Dragnet Allegation does not.
Article III of the Constitution limits the jurisdiction of federal courts to “Cases”
and “Controversies.” U.S. Const. art. III, § 2. “The doctrine of standing gives meaning
to these constitutional limits by ‘identify[ing] those disputes which are appropriately
The “speculative claims” that the court referred to all relate to Wikimedia’s
allegation that the NSA is “using Upstream surveillance to copy all or substantially all
communications passing through” chokepoints which the NSA surveils. J.A. 199.
Pg: 20 of 46
resolved through the judicial process.’” Susan B. Anthony List v. Driehaus, 134 S. Ct.
2334, 2341 (2014) (alteration in original) (quoting Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife, 504
U.S. 555, 560 (1992)). To establish standing, a plaintiff must show: (1) an injury in fact;
(2) a sufficient causal connection between the injury and the conduct complained of; and
(3) a likelihood that the injury will be redressed by a favorable decision. Id.
“To establish injury in fact, a plaintiff must show that he or she suffered ‘an
invasion of a legally protected interest’ that is ‘concrete and particularized’ and ‘actual or
imminent, not conjectural or hypothetical.’” Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins, 136 S. Ct. 1540,
1548 (2016) (quoting Lujan, 504 U.S. at 560). “For an injury to be particularized, it must
affect the plaintiff in a personal and individual way.” Id. (internal quotation marks
omitted). “The fact that an injury may be suffered by a large number of people does not
of itself make that injury a nonjusticiable generalized grievance.” Id. at 1548 n.7. The
purpose of the imminence requirement “is to ensure that the alleged injury is not too
speculative for Article III purposes.” Clapper, 133 S. Ct. at 1147. The “threatened injury
must be certainly impending to constitute injury in fact, and . . . [a]llegations of possible
future injury are not sufficient.” Id. (second alteration in original) (internal quotation
“[E]ach element [of standing] must be supported in the same way as any other
matter on which the plaintiff bears the burden of proof, i.e., with the manner and degree
of evidence required at the successive stages of the litigation.” Lujan, 504 U.S. at 561.
“A defendant may challenge [standing at the motion-to-dismiss stage] in one of two
ways: facially or factually.” Beck v. McDonald, 848 F.3d 262, 270 (4th Cir. 2017). In a
Pg: 21 of 46
facial challenge, the defendant contends that the complaint “fails to allege facts upon
which [standing] can be based,” and the plaintiff “is afforded the same procedural
protection” that exists on a motion to dismiss. Adams v. Bain, 697 F.2d 1213, 1219 (4th
In a factual challenge, the defendant contends “that the jurisdictional
allegations of the complaint [are] not true.” Id. In that event, a trial court may look
beyond the complaint “and in an evidentiary hearing determine if there are facts to
support the jurisdictional allegations.” Id.
“To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual
matter, accepted as true, ‘to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.’” Ashcroft
v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544,
570 (2007)). We accept as true all well-pleaded facts in a complaint and construe them in
the light most favorable to the plaintiff. SD3, LLC v. Black & Decker (U.S.) Inc., 801
F.3d 412, 422 (4th Cir. 2015). Indeed, a court cannot “favor its perception of the
relevant events over the narrative offered by the complaint,” thereby “recasting
‘plausibility’ into ‘probability.’” Id. at 430. However, legal conclusions pleaded as
factual allegations, “unwarranted inferences,” “unreasonable conclusions,” and “naked
assertions devoid of further factual enhancement” are not entitled to the presumption of
truth. Id. at 422.
The Third Circuit recently applied many of these principles in Schuchardt v.
President of the United States, where it held that, “at least as a facial matter,” a complaint
challenging PRISM surveillance—the other form of publicly acknowledged Section 702
Pg: 22 of 46
surveillance—“plausibly stated an injury in fact” sufficient to establish standing. 839
F.3d 336, 338 (3d Cir. 2016). Under PRISM surveillance, the government purportedly
obtains “user communications exchanged using services provided by several large U.S.
companies” directly from those companies’ servers. Id. at 340.
Schuchardt’s central allegation was that the NSA is “intercepting, monitoring and
storing the content of all or substantially all of the e-mail sent by American citizens, [and
thus] his own online communications had been seized in the dragnet.”
Id. at 341
(emphasis omitted). In support of that allegation, Schuchardt stated that he used online
services targeted by PRISM surveillance and incorporated into his complaint “excerpts of
the classified materials” made public through newspaper articles and filings in other
cases. Id. at 341. The complaint and its exhibits described the “technical means through
which PRISM purportedly achieves a nationwide email dragnet” and were “replete with
details confirming PRISM’s operational scope and capabilities.” Id. at 350.
For example, a slide from a purported NSA presentation “identif[ied] company
names and the dates they began cooperating with” the NSA, while another exhibit
“indicate[d] . . . that the degree of access those providers granted enables the Government
to query their facilities at will for ‘real-time interception of an individual’s [I]nternet
activity.’” Id. at 349–50 (citations omitted). Another purported NSA slide “confirm[ed]
that—consistent with a dragnet capturing ‘all or substantially all of the e–mail sent by
American citizens’—the scale of the data collected by PRISM is so vast that the
Government reported difficulty processing it according ‘to the norms’ to which [it has]
become accustomed.” Id. at 350 (alteration in original) (citations omitted).
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The Third Circuit bifurcated its analysis. First, it found Schuchardt’s allegations
sufficiently particularized to satisfy the injury-in-fact requirement.
Id. at 345–46.
Though PRISM surveillance is “universal in scope,” the harm that Schuchardt alleged
was “unmistakably personal”—“he ha[d] a constitutional right to maintain the privacy of
his personal communications, online or otherwise.” Id. Moreover, “the fact that [many
others] may share a similar interest d[id] not change [the injury’s] individualized nature
because Schuchardt’s allegations ma[de] clear that he [wa]s among the persons” targeted
by PRISM. Id. at 346 (internal quotation marks omitted).
Second, the court credited Schuchardt’s allegations as true for the purpose of
resolving the facial challenge to his complaint. Id. at 346–50. The level of detail in the
complaint—sufficient to describe “the technical means through which PRISM
purportedly” functions and to “confirm PRISM’s operational scope and capabilities”—
made his allegation about “the Government’s virtual dragnet” plausible. Id. at 349–50.
In doing so, the Third Circuit made clear that Schuchardt’s reliance on exhibits was not
disfavored, and that “[d]espite Clapper’s observation that the standing inquiry is
‘especially rigorous’ in matters touching on ‘intelligence gathering and foreign affairs,’”
it knew of no instance where a court had “imposed a heightened pleading standard for
cases implicating national security,” and thus “assume[d] without deciding that” one did
not apply. Id. at 348 n.8, 348–49 (quoting Clapper, 133 S. Ct. at 1147).
We find the Third Circuit’s approach persuasive and bifurcate our analyses of the
Wikimedia and Dragnet Allegations in similar fashion.
Pg: 24 of 46
As a reminder, the Wikimedia Allegation is that the NSA is intercepting, copying,
and reviewing at least some of Wikimedia’s communications in the course of Upstream
surveillance, “even if the NSA conducts Upstream surveillance on only a single [I]nternet
backbone link.” J.A. 49.
We conclude that this allegation satisfies the three elements of Article III standing.
We begin with injury in fact. See Spokeo, 136 S. Ct. at 1548 (defining injury in fact as
the invasion of a legally protected interest that is concrete and particularized and actual or
imminent). The allegation that the NSA is intercepting and copying communications
suffices to show an invasion of a legally protected interest—the “Fourth Amendment
right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.” Schuchardt, 839 F.3d at 353;
see also Am. Civil Liberties Union v. Clapper, 785 F.3d 787, 801 (2d Cir. 2015) (holding
at motion-to-dismiss stage that complaint challenging NSA’s bulk telephone metadata
collection program established standing to assert a Fourth Amendment violation where
alleged injury was “collection, and maintenance in a government database, of records
relating to” plaintiffs).
The injury is also concrete and particularized, despite “[t]he fact that [it is]
suffered by a large number of people,” because Wikimedia says that the NSA is seizing
its own communications through Upstream surveillance. See Spokeo, 136 S. Ct. at 1548
n.7; accord Schuchardt, 839 F.3d at 346. And, finishing up with the injury-in-fact
element, the injury “is not too speculative for Article III purposes.” Clapper, 133 S. Ct.
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at 1147. Indeed, there’s nothing speculative about it—the interception of Wikimedia’s
communications is an actual injury that has already occurred.
The Wikimedia Allegation also satisfies the other two elements of Article III
standing. Upstream surveillance is the direct cause of the alleged injury, and there’s no
reason to doubt that the requested injunctive and declaratory relief would redress the
harm. See Lujan, 504 U.S. at 560–61 (providing that the injury must be “fairly traceable”
to the conduct complained of and “likely” to be redressed by a favorable decision).
However, just because this allegation satisfies the elements of Article III standing
doesn’t mean that we must accept it as true for the purpose of resolving the government’s
facial challenge to the complaint. Thus, we proceed to the second part of our analysis to
decide whether the Wikimedia Allegation is plausible.
Wikimedia alleges three key facts that are entitled to the presumption of truth.
First, “[g]iven the relatively small number of international chokepoints,” the volume of
Wikimedia’s communications, and the geographical diversity of the people with whom it
international backbone link connecting the United States with the rest of the world.” J.A.
On appeal, Wikimedia attempts to rephrase this allegation so that it reads,
“Wikimedia’s communications traverse every major [I]nternet circuit entering or leaving
the United States.” Appellants’ Br. at 24. We look, however, to the wording of the
complaint. That said, the plausibility pleading regime doesn’t automatically invalidate
allegations that contain probabilistic-sounding words. For the purpose of deciding
whether the Wikimedia Allegation is plausible, we find this supporting allegation, based
as it is upon other factual allegations, to be well-pleaded. Indeed, Wikimedia need only
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Second, “in order for the NSA to reliably obtain communications to, from, or
about its targets in the way it has described, the government,” for technical reasons that
Wikimedia goes into at length, “must be copying and reviewing all the international textbased communications that travel across a given link” upon which it has installed
surveillance equipment. J.A. 48. Because details about the collection process remain
classified, Wikimedia can’t precisely describe the technical means that the NSA employs.
Instead, it spells out the technical rules of how the Internet works and concludes that,
given that the NSA is conducting Upstream surveillance on a backbone link, the rules
require that the NSA do so in a certain way.
We would never confuse the plausibility of this conclusion with that accorded to
Newton’s laws of motion. But accepting the technical rules about the Internet as true,
and given that Wikimedia is applying them in an appropriate context (i.e., it uses the rules
to explain the technical means through which Upstream surveillance functions), we find
this conclusion reasonable and entitled to the presumption of truth.
Third, per the PCLOB Report and a purported NSA slide, “the NSA has confirmed
that it conducts Upstream surveillance at more than one point along the [I]nternet
backbone.” J.A. 49–51. Together, these allegations are sufficient to make plausible the
conclusion that the NSA is intercepting, copying, and reviewing at least some of
“state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face,” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (quoting
Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570). Construing, as we must, all well-pleaded facts in the light
most favorable to Wikimedia, SD3, 801 F.3d at 422, Wikimedia’s claim that its
“communications almost certainly traverse” every chokepoint is enough to satisfy the
plausibility requirement. J.A. 48.
Pg: 27 of 46
Wikimedia’s communications. To put it simply, Wikimedia has plausibly alleged that its
communications travel all of the roads that a communication can take, and that the NSA
seizes all of the communications along at least one of those roads.
Thus, at least at this stage of the litigation, Wikimedia has standing to sue for a
violation of the Fourth Amendment. And, because Wikimedia has self-censored its
speech and sometimes forgone electronic communications in response to Upstream
surveillance, it also has standing to sue for a violation of the First Amendment. See Am.
Civil Liberties Union, 785 F.3d at 802 (holding that complaint established standing to
assert First Amendment violation in addition to Fourth Amendment violation because
“[w]hen the government collects appellants’ metadata, appellants’ members’ interests in
keeping their associations and contacts private are implicated, and any potential ‘chilling
effect’ is created at that point”); see also Cooksey v. Futrell, 721 F.3d 226, 235 (4th Cir.
2013) (“In First Amendment cases, the injury-in-fact element is commonly satisfied by a
sufficient showing of self-censorship, which occurs when a claimant is chilled from
exercising his right to free expression.”) (quotation marks and alteration omitted).
The government resists this conclusion, asserting that the Wikimedia Allegation
“rest[s] on speculation as to the scope and scale of Upstream collection, and the means by
which that collection is accomplished.” Appellees’ Br. at 23. The district court said
much the same, and the best way to address this contention is by examining the ways in
which that court misapplied Clapper’s discussion of speculative injury.
Pg: 28 of 46
Unlike in Clapper, where the plaintiffs based their theories of standing on
prospective or threatened injury and actions taken in response thereto, Wikimedia
pleaded an actual and ongoing injury, which renders Clapper’s certainly-impending
analysis inapposite here. Compare Schuchardt, 839 F.3d at 351 (distinguishing Clapper
and its discussion of a “speculative chain of possibilities” because plaintiff’s “alleged
[Fourth Amendment] injury has already occurred insofar as he claims the NSA seized his
emails”), with Beck, 848 F.3d at 267–69, 274–75 (applying Clapper’s certainly
impending standard to a motion to dismiss an action under the Privacy Act of 1974, and
finding plaintiff’s allegation that “her information ‘will eventually be misused as a result
of’” a data breach that compromised her personal information too speculative to establish
In other words, the Wikimedia Allegation is different in kind than the facts (or
lack thereof) alleged in Clapper to establish standing at summary judgment. That brings
us to our next point. By relying so heavily on Clapper, the district court blurred the line
between the distinct burdens for establishing standing at the motion-to-dismiss and
summary-judgment stages of litigation.
Put another way, what may perhaps be
speculative at summary judgment can be plausible on a motion to dismiss.
For example, the district court characterized Wikimedia’s allegations as
“speculative” based upon its own observation that it’s unclear whether the NSA is “using
[its] surveillance equipment to its full potential” to intercept “all communications passing
through” chokepoints upon which the NSA has installed surveillance equipment. J.A.
190, 198–99. That observation might be appropriate with the benefit of an evidentiary
Pg: 29 of 46
record at summary judgment, but coming as it did on a motion to dismiss, it had the
effect of rejecting Wikimedia’s well-pleaded allegations and impermissibly injecting an
evidentiary issue into a plausibility determination. See Schuchardt, 839 F.3d at 347–48
(citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556); SDR, 801 F.3d at 431.
The district court made the same mistake by speculating that “the fact that all NSA
surveillance practices must survive FISC review . . . suggests that the NSA is not using
its surveillance equipment to its full potential.” J.A. 190–91. Wikimedia’s reliance at the
motion-to-dismiss stage on publicly disclosed information about Upstream surveillance,
purported NSA documents, technical rules about how the Internet works, and its
understanding of its own operations is not, as the district court put it, “precisely the sort
of speculative reasoning foreclosed by” Clapper’s discussion of how much factual
material is necessary to satisfy the certainly-impending prong of the injury-in-fact
element of Article III standing at summary judgment. J.A. 192. 8
That’s not to say that all of Wikimedia’s allegations as to injury are both plausible
and actual or imminent. For example, the district court was right to take issue with
Wikimedia’s probability calculation, which “is incomplete and riddled with
assumptions.” J.A. 197. But we need not look further into that allegation’s deficiencies,
because Wikimedia doesn’t need it to establish standing.
We also reject the government’s argument that Wikimedia hasn’t pleaded enough
facts to establish injury flowing from its intercepted communications. To the contrary,
Like the Third Circuit, we assume without deciding that a heightened pleading
standard does not apply to national security cases.
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Wikimedia’s detailed allegations suffice to plausibly establish cognizable injuries under
the First and Fourth Amendments. See Rakas v. Illinois, 439 U.S. 128, 140 (1978)
(providing that the “definition of [Fourth Amendment] rights is more properly placed
within the purview of substantive Fourth Amendment law than within that of standing”);
Cooksey, 721 F.3d at 235 (“The leniency of First Amendment standing manifests itself
most commonly in the doctrine’s first element: injury-in-fact.”). At this stage of the
litigation, that is enough.
Finally, we decline the government’s invitation to consider its evidence, including
the two declarations, which it says “supports the district court’s analysis and undermines
plaintiffs’ allegations about how they surmise Upstream surveillance operates.”
Appellees’ Br. at 23. The district court treated the government’s motion to dismiss as a
facial challenge to the complaint and didn’t consider the government’s evidence. We will
follow suit and not look beyond the complaint and documents incorporated by reference
therein. See Beck, 848 F.3d at 270 (explaining the differences between facial and factual
challenges to standing). The government is free to bring a factual challenge on remand,
where the district court in the first instance may consider Wikimedia’s argument—should
it choose to raise it again—that the intertwined nature of the jurisdictional and merits
questions precludes such a challenge. 9
We decline to decide whether Wikimedia has established third-party standing.
Wikimedia may, of course, raise that argument on remand.
Pg: 31 of 46
We now turn to the Dragnet Allegation, which is that the NSA is “intercepting,
copying, and reviewing substantially all” text-based communications entering and
leaving the United States. J.A. 46. The district court arrived at the correct conclusion as
to whether this allegation establishes standing, but only by incorrectly analogizing to
Clapper. As we explain below, the reason this allegation fails to establish standing is that
it does not contain enough well-pleaded facts entitled to the presumption of truth.
The Dragnet and Wikimedia Allegations share much in common. Because each
alleges the same particularized and ongoing cognizable injuries, our analysis of the
injury-in-fact, traceability, and redressability elements of Article III standing with respect
to the Wikimedia Allegation also applies here. But there’s a key difference in the scope
of the two allegations. In the Dragnet Allegation, Plaintiffs must plausibly establish that
the NSA is intercepting “substantially all” text-based communications entering and
leaving the United States, whereas it’s sufficient for purposes of the Wikimedia
Allegation to show that the NSA is conducting Upstream surveillance on a single
backbone link. Because Plaintiffs don’t assert enough facts about Upstream’s operational
scope to plausibly allege a dragnet, they have no Article III standing.
In support of a dragnet and in addition to the assertions in the Wikimedia
Allegation, Plaintiffs allege the following: (1) “given the way the government has
described Upstream surveillance,” including that its “aim is to ‘comprehensively’ and
Pg: 32 of 46
‘reliably’ obtain communications to, from, and about targets scattered around the world,”
the NSA “has a strong incentive to intercept communications at as many backbone
chokepoints as possible,” and indeed “must” be doing so “at many different backbone
chokepoints,” J.A. 49–50; (2) the technical rules governing online communications make
this conclusion “especially true,” J.A. 50; and (3) a New York Times article asserts that
the NSA “is temporarily copying and then sifting through the contents of what is
apparently most e-mails and other text-based communications that cross the border,” J.A.
We hold that these allegations, even when supplemented by the Wikimedia
Allegation, including that the NSA is conducting Upstream surveillance on at least seven
backbone links, 10 are insufficient to make plausible the claim that the NSA is intercepting
“substantially all” text-based communications entering and leaving the United States.
To begin with, the New York Times article is effectively a recitation of the Dragnet
Allegation, and as such we ascribe little significance to it. The dissent takes issue with
our treatment of this article because—as it must—it predates the complaint. Our friend
Plaintiffs also reference “another NSA document [which] states that, in support
of FAA [(i.e., the FISA Amendments Act of 2008)] surveillance, the ‘NSA has expended
a significant amount of resources to create collection/processing capabilities at many of
the chokepoints operated by U.S. providers.’” J.A. 51 (emphasis added). As Plaintiffs
note, there are “at least two kinds of surveillance” under the Act—PRISM and Upstream.
J.A. 40. Pointedly, and unlike in numerous other allegations throughout their complaint,
including the immediately preceding one which references an “NSA slide illustrat[ing]
the Upstream surveillance facilitated by just a single provider . . . at seven . . .
chokepoints,” J.A. 50, Plaintiffs decline to specify which type of surveillance the NSA
document refers to. Accordingly, we accept this allegation as true, but give it little
Pg: 33 of 46
misses the point. The article makes a broad statement almost identical to the Dragnet
Under the dissent’s view, one expansive allegation is enough to make
plausible another almost-identical allegation. That is not the law.
Furthermore, we accept as true Plaintiffs’ allegation about what the NSA is
incentivized to do, but even so, that fact, without more, doesn’t establish a dragnet. That
leaves Plaintiffs with their allegation about what the NSA “must” be doing, a contention
that lacks sufficient factual support to get “across the line from conceivable to plausible.”
See Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570.
A point of emphasis—we are not rejecting the allegation because it’s phrased as
an absolute. Indeed, we’ve already credited as true Plaintiffs’ allegation that the NSA
“must be copying and reviewing all the international text-based communications that
travel across” backbone links which the NSA is surveilling. J.A. 48. We did so because
Wikimedia applied the rules governing Internet communications to Upstream
surveillance’s stated purpose to arrive at a reasonable conclusion about the technical
means through which Upstream functions on the backbone links which the NSA surveils.
One ground for that conclusion’s reasonableness is that given that the NSA is surveilling
a link, the rules governing Internet communications necessarily affect, to some degree,
the way it surveils that link.
By contrast, in the Dragnet allegation, Plaintiffs seek to use the theory governing
Internet communications in conjunction with Upstream surveillance’s stated purpose to
arrive at an allegation about what the program’s operational scope must be. But neither
theory nor purpose says anything about what the NSA is doing from an operational
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standpoint. While both are relevant factors, without more they can’t establish a dragnet.
In that sense, the facts alleged here are far different than those in Schuchardt, where the
plaintiff plausibly pleaded a dragnet under PRISM surveillance by describing “the
technical means through which PRISM” functions and by “confirming PRISM’s
operational scope and capabilities” through exhibits “replete with details.” 839 F.3d at
349–50. Those exhibits included purported NSA slides which listed “company names
and the dates they began cooperating with the” NSA and “confirm[ed] that . . . the scale
of the data collected by PRISM is so vast that the Government [had] difficulty processing
it according ‘to the norms to which [it had] become accustomed.’” Id. at 350.
The last hope for the Dragnet Allegation, then, is to supplement the “must”
allegation with facts detailing Upstream’s operational scope. But even accepting the
allegation that one telecommunications-service provider is facilitating Upstream
surveillance at 7 of the approximately 49 chokepoints, we still don’t think that Plaintiffs
have plausibly alleged a dragnet. The allegations here fall short of the level of detail in
Schuchardt, and were we to accept Plaintiffs’ approach to standing, we would sanction
the extrapolation of the plausible from the conceivable.
Our recent decision in SD3 is not to the contrary. There, we considered the
plausibility of a complaint alleging an antitrust conspiracy in violation of the Sherman
Antitrust Act. 801 F.3d at 423. We explained that for such a “claim to survive . . . a
plaintiff must plead parallel conduct and something ‘more.’”
Twombly, 550 U.S. at 557)).
Id. at 424 (quoting
“That more,” we said, “must consist of further
circumstances pointing toward a meeting of the minds.” Id. (alteration and internal
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quotation marks omitted). The plaintiff in SD3 was able to establish that “more” by
alleging the who, what, when, where, and why of a group boycott. Id. at 429–31.
Plaintiffs use our treatment of the “why” element in SD3 to attach special
significance to their allegation that the NSA has a strong incentive to establish a dragnet.
But context is key. We observed in SD3 that “motivation for common action is a key
circumstantial fact.” Id. at 431 (emphasis added) (alteration and internal quotation marks
It should come as no surprise that motive is an important factor when
establishing an antitrust conspiracy.
SD3 does not, however, stand for the broad
proposition that motivation is always of special significance in plausibly pleading an
Relatedly, the level of detail in the SD3 complaint is of a different magnitude than
the one here, and further supports our conclusion about the implausibility of the Dragnet
Allegation. For example, the SD3 plaintiff “identifie[d] the particular time, place, and
manner in which the boycott initially formed” and gave “the means by which the
defendants sealed their boycott agreement: a majority vote.” Id. at 430. Those are the
sorts of operational details, albeit in a case concerning a different subject matter, that are
by and large absent here and which we think are vital to render plausible an allegation as
sweeping as the one Plaintiffs posit. See Twombly, 550 U.S. at 558 (“[A] district court
must retain the power to insist upon some specificity in pleading before allowing a
potentially massive factual controversy to proceed.”); Swanson v. Citibank, N.A., 614
F.3d 400, 405 (7th Cir. 2010) (“A more complex case involving financial derivatives, or
tax fraud that the parties tried hard to conceal, or antitrust violations, will require more
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detail, both to give the opposing party notice of what the case is all about and to show
how, in the plaintiff’s mind at least, the dots should be connected.”).
The dissent says that this analysis is flawed because the NSA’s inability to predict
a communication’s path paired with its desire to “comprehensively acquire
communications” renders plausible the allegation of a dragnet. The dissent thinks that’s a
“logical extension” of our crediting as true Wikimedia’s allegation that the NSA reviews
all communications that flow across each link that it surveils. Clearly, there are some
similarities, in the sense that each allegation depends, in part, on the application of
internet theory to a statement about Upstream’s purpose. But, perhaps because it fails to
grapple with any of the relevant case law, the dissent misses two subtle but key
The allegation that we credit as true uses theory to explain how the NSA is doing
something, given a defined operational scope. Moreover, that theory necessarily affects
the way the NSA does what we know it to be doing. Conversely, the allegation that we
do not credit as true uses theory to define scope. And, there’s no direct link between that
theory (the NSA doesn’t know a communication’s route) and operational scope. The
dissent’s analysis has no limiting principle and, if adopted, would dilute the plausibility
pleading standard to a near-nullity.
In sum, Plaintiffs lack standing to sue for a violation of the Fourth Amendment
under the Dragnet Allegation because they can’t plausibly show that the NSA is
intercepting their communications via a dragnet. From there, it follows that they also
lack standing to sue for a violation of the First Amendment because “[a]llegations of a
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subjective ‘chill’ are not an adequate substitute for a claim of specific present objective
harm or a threat of specific future harm.” Clapper, 133 S. Ct. at 1152 (alteration in
original) (quoting Laird v. Tatum, 408 U.S. 1, 13–14 (1972)). Nor can Plaintiffs establish
standing on the ground that Upstream surveillance compels them to take burdensome and
costly measures. The Dragnet Allegation’s implausibility leaves them with nothing more
than “fears of hypothetical future harm,” and they “cannot manufacture standing merely
by inflicting harm on themselves based on” those fears. Id. at 1151. 11
Before concluding, we briefly address the dissent’s contention that our analysis of
the non-Wikimedia Plaintiffs’ standing is superfluous.
Article III of the Constitution requires that we determine whether the nonWikimedia Plaintiffs have standing because the complaint rests upon the premise that the
NSA is seizing each Plaintiff’s unique communications.
As such, it includes the
following request for individualized relief: “Order Defendants to purge all records of
Plaintiffs’ communications in their possession obtained pursuant to Upstream
surveillance.” J.A. 84. Thus, the Constitution requires that each Plaintiff be able to
plausibly allege the Fourth Amendment injury in fact that the NSA has seized its
communications, because if a Plaintiff cannot do so it doesn’t have standing to, among
We reach the same conclusion as to Joshua Dratel, who is a member of the
National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. He too cannot show that his
communications are being intercepted via a dragnet, and the district court correctly held
that the claim that one of his clients “has received notice of [Section 702 surveillance]”
didn’t plausibly allege that the NSA targeted his client with Upstream surveillance. J.A.
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other things, seek an order requiring the NSA to purge its records. To hold otherwise
would be to sanction a shortcut around “the irreducible constitutional minimum of
standing.” Lujan, 504 U.S. at 560.
Horne v. Flores, 557 U.S. 433 (2009), and Village of Arlington Heights v.
Metropolitan Housing Development Corp., 429 U.S. 252 (1977), are not to the contrary.
Each case is quite different from ours, rendering inapplicable the standing-avoidance
doctrine which the dissent reads them to embody. 12 Critically, in those cases each party
for whom standing was at issue requested identical relief. Horne, 557 U.S. at 443;
Village of Arlington Heights, 429 U.S. at 258. Thus, once the Court decided that a single
party had standing, it made no difference to the resolution of either case whether any
other party had standing. See Horne, 557 U.S. at 446 & n.2 (concluding that school
superintendent had standing to seek vacatur of a district court’s orders in their entirety
and declining to consider whether state legislators also had standing to pursue identical
relief); Village of Arlington Heights, 429 U.S. at 264 & n.9 (concluding that one
individual plaintiff had standing to pursue declaratory and injunctive relief and declining
to consider whether other individuals had standing to pursue identical relief); see also,
e.g., Sec’y of the Interior v. California, 464 U.S. 312, 319 n.3 (1984) (“Since the State of
As for the dissent’s invocation of then-Judge Roberts’s notable quotable that “if
it is not necessary to decide more, it is necessary not to decide more,” context is key—
that remark in a concurrence had nothing to do with standing, but rather pertained to the
judge’s disagreement with the majority’s application of the Chevron doctrine. See PDK
Labs. Inc. v. Drug Enf’t Admin., 362 F.3d 786, 799, 803–04 (D.C. Cir. 2004) (Roberts, J.,
concurring in part and concurring in the judgment). We don’t disagree with the general
sentiment. It’s just not relevant here.
Pg: 39 of 46
California clearly does have standing, we need not address the standing of the other
respondents, whose position here is identical to the State’s.”).
Here, the Plaintiffs freely admit that they are not identical to one another. Instead,
they fall into two different camps when it comes to demonstrating whether the NSA is
seizing their communications. Moreover, the district court made an affirmative finding
that none of the Plaintiffs had standing. Under these circumstances, we find it wholly
appropriate (indeed necessary) to address fully this threshold question.
For the reasons given, we vacate that portion of the district court’s judgment
dismissing the complaint as to Wikimedia and remand for proceedings consistent with
this opinion. We otherwise affirm the judgment.
AFFIRMED IN PART,
VACATED IN PART,
Pg: 40 of 46
DAVIS, Senior Circuit Judge, concurring in part and dissenting in part:
I agree with the holding that Wikimedia has standing to challenge the NSA’s
surveillance of its internet communications. However, because I would find that the
non-Wikimedia Plaintiffs also have standing, I respectfully dissent in part.
In order to explain my disagreement with the majority, I briefly recount the
relevant allegations in this case, taken as true, of course, at this stage of the proceedings.
Plaintiffs make essentially two sets of factual allegations: the first explaining how
international internet communications function and the second describing how the NSA
surveils international internet communications as they enter and exit the United States.
First, Plaintiffs allege that internet communications are governed by certain
technical rules as they travel from sender to recipient. The majority of international
internet communications that move through the United States are transmitted through
forty-nine submarine cables and a limited number of terrestrial cables. These cables
(combined with the cables and networks that transmit domestic internet communications)
are known as the internet backbone, and the different physical entry and exit points into
the United States are known as backbone links. The junctions where these cables meet
are chokepoints through which nearly all international internet traffic passes. Internet
communications do not flow along the backbone as discrete and intact entities but instead
are broken into smaller packets of information. The packets that make up a single
internet communication travel to their common destination independently from one
another — in the process becoming intermingled with packets from unrelated
Pg: 41 of 46
communications — and are reassembled only once they reach their destination. Each
packet reaches its destination following a different and wholly unpredictable path, which
is determined by rapidly changing factors such as network conditions. Because packets
travel along independent and dynamic paths, communications sent between two
individuals in “real-time” can traverse different backbone links “even though the end
points are the same.” J.A. 50. Similarly, a single individual’s communications sent at
different times can traverse different backbone links.
Second, based on the government’s disclosures and media reports, Plaintiffs allege
that the NSA is surveilling internet communications as they travel along the internet
backbone, a practice known as Upstream surveillance. The NSA accomplishes this by
installing surveillance devices at backbone links, which allow the agency to copy the
internet communications traversing these links.
The NSA searches the copied
communications for selectors. Selectors are “specific communications facilit[ies]” (e.g.
email address, telephone numbers, and IP addresses) associated with the NSA’s foreign
surveillance targets. PCLOB Report 32. The NSA retains communications sent to or
from a selector as well as communications containing a selector in their content, which
are known as “about communications.” About communications are not necessarily sent
to or from a foreign surveillance target. According to the government’s disclosures,
surveillance of about communications is necessary because the NSA seeks to
“comprehensively acquire communications that are sent to or from its targets.” Id. at 10.
With respect to the scope of Upstream surveillance, the New York Times reported that,
through the use of this form of surveillance, the NSA is copying “what is apparently most
Pg: 42 of 46
e-mails and other text-based communications that cross the border.” J.A. 51. Plaintiffs
also quote an NSA document that states the “NSA has expended a significant amount of
resources to create collection/processing capabilities at many of the chokepoints operated
by U.S. providers through which international communications enter and leave the
United States.” Id.
I agree with the majority’s analysis concluding that Clapper v. Amnesty
International USA, 133 S. Ct. 1138 (2013), does not control this case and that —
accepted as true, as they must be — Plaintiffs’ allegations satisfy the three elements of
standing. The majority also correctly finds that the factual allegations necessary to
establish Wikimedia’s standing are plausible.
However, the majority errs, both by
reaching out to decide the issue of the non-Wikimedia Plaintiffs’ standing 1 and, as well,
See Horne v. Flores, 557 U.S. 433, 446 (2009) (“Because the Superintendent
clearly has standing to challenge the lower courts’ decisions, we need not consider
whether the legislators also have standing to do so.”); Vill. of Arlington Heights v. Metro.
Hous. Dev. Corp., 429 U.S. 252, 264 and n.9 (1977) (holding because “one individual
plaintiff . . . has demonstrated standing,” the Court “need not consider whether the other
individual and corporate plaintiffs have standing to maintain the suit”). The majority’s
“same relief” gloss on Horne and Arlington Heights completely reads out of Justice
Alito’s opinion in Horne the following sentence: “[I]n all standing inquiries, the critical
question is whether at least one petitioner has alleged such a personal stake in the
outcome of the controversy as to warrant his invocation of federal-court jurisdiction.”
Horne, 557 U.S. at 445 (citations and internal quotation marks omitted). In any event,
this case actually fits within the majority’s “same relief” paradigm because all plaintiffs
seek declaratory and injunctive relief intended to shut down the government’s Upstream
surveillance program. The mere fact that a “purging order” of the sort contemplated by
the majority would operate only to “purge” seized communications of a particular
plaintiff is a thin reed indeed on which to base the majority’s unnecessary door-closing
Pg: 43 of 46
in the answer it gives to the question it need not even reach in holding that the nonWikimedia Plaintiffs’ lack standing because the pertinent allegations are not plausible.
In order to find that Wikimedia has standing in this action, the majority credits as
true three factual allegations. First, because Wikimedia sends and receives so many
international internet communications, its communications travel across every internet
backbone link. Second, based on the government’s disclosures, the NSA is surveilling at
least one backbone link. Third, the NSA intercepts and copies every packet that passes
through the backbone link(s) being surveilled (what the majority calls the Wikimedia
Allegation). The third allegation is not based on Plaintiffs’ knowledge of the NSA’s
surveillance techniques. Instead, the majority finds this factual allegation is plausible
It is not clear to me why the majority elects to ignore the Chief Justice’s sage
admonition: “[I]f it is not necessary to decide more, it is necessary not to decide more.”
PDK Labs., Inc. v. Drug Enforcement Admin., 362 F.3d 786, 799 (D.C. Cir. 2004)
(Roberts, J., concurring in part and concurring in the judgment). The majority’s assertion
to the contrary notwithstanding, I think I know dicta when I see it, and here I see dicta.
If, in fact, the Wikimedia Plaintiffs go on to prove their claims in this case, i.e., establish
a violation of the Fourth Amendment as to themselves, it is beyond my capacity to
conjure a rational basis on which the non-Wikimedia Plaintiffs would not be entitled to
similar relief from seizures effected pursuant to the Upstream program and of course, the
dismissal here of the non-Wikimedia Plaintiffs will be without prejudice. S. Walk at
Broadlands Homeowner's Ass’n v. OpenBand at Broadlands, LLC, 713 F.3d 175, 185
(4th Cir. 2013).
In sum, the day cannot be far off when defendants in a broad array of multiplaintiff cases will point to the majority’s holding in this case as authority requiring
already short-handed and overworked federal district judges to separately assess the
standing of each and every plaintiff in complex, impact litigation. Needless to say, we
should avoid imposing such a requirement in the absence of the absolute necessity that
we do so.
Pg: 44 of 46
because it is based on Upstream surveillance’s stated purpose and the technical rules that
govern internet communications.
The logical chain is as follows: The NSA has
acknowledged that it uses Upstream surveillance to target “about communications,”
which contain a selector in the content of the communication. Before it can search the
contents of an internet communication that has been broken up into discrete packets
while in transit, the NSA must copy and reassemble all of the packets that make up the
communication. However, packets from targeted communications cannot be segregated
from the packets of unrelated communications. Thus, in order to “reliably” intercept
targeted communications, the NSA must copy all of the packets that flow across a
backbone link so that the government can be assured that it has captured all of the packets
that make up the targeted communication (and in the process capturing unrelated
packets). J.A. 48–49.
Conversely, under the majority’s “crabbed plausibility analysis,” see Woods v.
City of Greensboro, --- F.3d ---, ---, 2017 WL 1754898, *2 (4th Cir. 2017), the nonWikimedia Plaintiffs are denied standing because, in the majority’s view, those Plaintiffs
rely on an implausible guess regarding Upstream surveillance’s operational scope. For
the non-Wikimedia Plaintiffs to have standing, according to the majority, Plaintiffs must
plausibly allege an additional fact beyond those discussed with respect to Wikimedia: the
NSA is surveilling most backbone links (what the majority calls the Dragnet Allegation).
Just as with the Wikimedia Allegation, Plaintiffs base this factual allegation on Upstream
Pg: 45 of 46
surveillance’s stated purpose and the technical rules governing internet communications. 2
However, the majority finds this allegation implausible because it believes that “neither
theory nor purpose says anything about what the NSA is doing from an operational
standpoint.” Op. at 33. This misapprehends the full scope of Plaintiffs’ allegations.
Plaintiffs have plausibly alleged that the NSA surveils most backbone links
because — based on the technical rules governing internet communications — the agency
cannot know which link the communications it targets will traverse when they enter or
leave the United States. The path that packets take along the internet backbone is
determined dynamically based on unpredictable conditions. Thus, a communication sent
by a surveillance target can enter the United States through one backbone link, but an
immediate response returned to the surveillance target can traverse a different backbone
Similarly, communications sent by a surveillance target at different times or
locations can traverse different backbone links.
Given this technical limitation, the
communications that are sent to or from its targets,” J.A. 49, renders Plaintiffs’ allegation
If the NSA cannot know which backbone link its targets’ internet
Plaintiffs provide additional support for this allegation by corroborating it with a
N.Y. Times report, which stated that the NSA is surveilling “most e-mails and other textbased communications that cross the border.” J.A. 51. The majority finds that this report
is entitled to “little significance” because it “is effectively a recitation of” Plaintiffs’
allegation. Op. at 32. The N.Y. Times report predates the complaint, however; thus, the
allegation is a “recitation” of the factual news report, not the other way around.
Moreover, the fact that Plaintiffs based their allegation on factual news reporting rather
than their own conjecture means the allegation is entitled to more weight not less.
Pg: 46 of 46
communications will traverse, then the only way it can comprehensively acquire its
targets’ communications is by surveilling virtually every backbone link.
This allegation is essentially a logical extension of Plaintiffs’ earlier allegation that
the NSA must copy every communication that flows across a backbone link it surveils.
Just as it is plausible that the government must copy all of the packets that flow through a
backbone link in order to “reliably” capture the packets that make up a targeted internet
communication, because the government does not know across which backbone link a
communication will travel, it is also plausible that the government must monitor virtually
every link in order to “comprehensively” capture its targets’ communications. Given that
we review here a motion to dismiss and not a motion for summary judgment, the
non-Wikimedia Plaintiffs have provided enough factual support to their allegation to
For the reasons set forth, while I discern no need whatsoever to review the district
court’s legal determination of the non-Wikimedia Plaintiffs’ standing, I respectfully
dissent from the majority opinion’s unnecessary resolution of that issue.
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