News Intelligence Analysis




From the New York Times

July 21, 2006

Judge Declines to Dismiss Privacy Suit Against AT&T


SAN FRANCISCO, July 20 — A federal judge on Thursday rejected a motion by the Bush administration to dismiss a lawsuit against AT&T over its cooperation with a government surveillance program, ruling that state secrets would not be at risk if the suit proceeded.

The case was filed in February by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties group, and alleged that AT&T was collaborating with the National Security Agency in a surveillance program tracking the domestic and foreign communications of millions of Americans.

In rejecting the motion brought by the Justice Department, Vaughn R. Walker, chief judge of the Federal District Court for the Northern District of California, ruled that the government had already disclosed in broad terms whose communications it monitored, and that it was generally interested in calls between the United States and other countries.

“The government has opened the door for judicial inquiry by publicly confirming and denying material information about its monitoring of communications content,” Judge Walker wrote.

“Because of the public disclosures by the government and AT&T,’’ he added, “the court cannot conclude that merely maintaining this action creates a ‘reasonable danger’ of harming national security.”

The judge also rejected a separate motion to dismiss by AT&T, which had argued that its relationship with the government made it immune from prosecution.

Judge Walker noted that his ruling should not be interpreted as an indication that his review of classified material presented by the government confirmed the accusations in the suit.

The government’s surveillance of telephone and Internet activity as part of its effort to track terrorists was disclosed in an article in The New York Times last December. In filing its lawsuit, the Electronic Frontier Foundation cited the testimony of a former AT&T technician who disclosed technical documents about the installation of monitoring equipment at an AT&T Internet switching center in San Francisco.

“This cases arises against the backdrop of the accountability of the government as it pursues its surveillance program,” said Marc Rotenberg, director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a civil liberties group based in Washington. “This is a significant victory for the principle of government accountability.”

Cindy Cohn, legal director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said the lawsuit was one of about 35 filed in different states in response to disclosures about the surveillance program, which the Bush administration has acknowledged. Senator Arlen Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania, has introduced legislation to consolidate those cases before a special court that had previously been established under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to deal with such issues.

Separately, at the request of AT&T, Verizon and the government, a federal court in Chicago has begun to consider whether the cases should be consolidated or heard before separate federal courts.

An AT&T spokesman, Walt Sharp, said the company was evaluating its options in light of the judge’s ruling. Mr. Sharp emphasized that the company was committed to protecting the privacy rights of its customers.

A Justice Department spokesman did not return telephone calls seeking comment.

In a separate lawsuit filed before a federal court in Detroit, the American Civil Liberties Union is suing the National Security Agency over the surveillance program.

Lawyers for the Electronic Frontier Foundation said they assumed the government would appeal the ruling, and said the next phase of the case would deal with whether the judge would permit the discovery phase of the trial to continue during the appeal process.

“Everyone expects the government to appeal, and that could take some time,” said Robert D. Fram, a partner at Heller Ehrman, the San Francisco firm representing the foundation in the case.


Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company


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