Sunday, June 04, 2006

NSA Phone Database Lawsuits - US govt. may block

In a Wall Street Journal article on Friday, June 2, Dionne Searcey reports that the U. S. government may move to dismiss lawsuits between individuals and various telecomm companies which handed their phone records to the National Security Administration. Here is a teaser of the article Also below is information from the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which is helping the plaintiffs, including a link for their redacted copy of the goverment's motion.

The plaintiffs, who accuse Bell phone companies of privacy violations and are seeking billions of dollars in damages, would need to delve into the depths of the NSA's surveillance program to make their cases. But the government considers such information top secret, and legal experts expect the Bush administration to assert the "state secrets" privilege in the 20 or more lawsuits filed by privacy advocates in recent weeks. If judges accept the claim, as has been the case in nearly every instance in which it has been asserted since the early 1950s, the suits will dissolve.

The state-secrets privilege stems from the Cold War era, created to allow the U.S. government a means of moving to dismiss lawsuits that would hurt foreign policy or national security. The motion has been successfully invoked in cases involving government contractors and, more recently, in the case of a German citizen claiming he was wrongfully detained by the Central Intelligence Agency.

In a California suit filed earlier this year against AT&T Inc., the Bush administration has already weighed in to try to dismiss the case, asserting state secrets in a motion aimed at preventing the airing of any classified information. A federal judge in San Francisco is expected to rule on the motion as soon as June 23.

In that case, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco privacy-rights group, accuses AT&T of illegally helping the NSA analyze phone records and Internet communications without court authorization. Most of the suits have been brought on behalf of phone-company customers by activists ranging from the state branches of the American Civil Liberties Union to public-interest lawyers to Chicago author Studs Terkel. Nearly all seek class-action status.

The suits against AT&T, Verizon Communications Inc. and BellSouth Corp. stem from recent media reports alleging that the companies violated privacy laws by handing over domestic calling records of Americans without court authorization. To litigate the cases, plaintiffs as well as defendants must produce evidence of exactly what happened between the companies and the NSA, lawyers say. AT&T declines to comment on the cases but insists it has violated no laws. Spokesmen for BellSouth and Verizon, which have denied turning over records to the NSA, say the suits are without merit.

Electronic Frontier Foundation notes that the government's motion to the federal judge in the San Francisco case was secret, and they only received a redacted version for public consumption May 15 news story link.

Government's redacted motion to dismiss link.

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