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7/20/2006
03:27 PM
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Judge Denies Request To Throw Out AT&T Spy Suit

That means the lawsuit will go forward. The Electronic Frontier Foundation is charging that AT&T broke the law by assisting the National Security Agency's efforts in eavesdropping on millions of Americans' telephone conversations.

A judge denied requests by the federal government and AT&T Corps. to dismiss a lawsuit claiming AT&T broke the law by assisting the National Security Agency's efforts in eavesdropping on millions of Americans' communications.

U.S. District Court Judge Vaughn Walker ruled Thursday in San Francisco that the Electronic Frontier Foundation's class action lawsuit against AT&T will continue. EFF lawyers said the ruling is the most significant to come out from about 35 similar cases pending across the country.

In many of those cases, the government is arguing, or expected to argue, that the lawsuits could expose state secrets and jeopardize national security. Some judges are considering motions to dismiss the cases against phone companies and the federal government on "national security" grounds. No other judge has ruled on that argument yet.

Walker proposed appointing an expert who can help determine whether revealing specific information in the case presents a substantial danger. He did not decide whether AT&T Inc., the holding company, should remain as a defendant in the suit.

EFF filed a lawsuit in February, claiming that AT&T gave the NSA direct access to massive amounts of customer data. The lawsuit includes testimony from former AT&T employees who describe building a secret and secure room where wires were split to send replicas of all data to federal investigators.

President George W. Bush and many of his backers claim that the government only monitored international communications with links to terrorism. Bush and some legal experts say the program is allowed under laws providing war powers and executive authority. Critics argue that the program is illegal, and it circumvented required court review and subsequent attempts at congressional oversight.

In an attempt to dismiss the lawsuit, AT&T argued that even if it behave as alleged, corporations have immunity from lawsuits claiming companies cooperated with law enforcement authorities in matters regarding national security.

Walker disagreed.

"AT&T cannot seriously contend that a reasonable entity in its position could have believe that the alleged domestic dragnet was legal," he said in the ruling. He said he had a constitutional duty to adjudicate the case because of its implications on personal liberties.

EFF claims AT&T cooperated with a dragnet by allowing access to databases that allegedly handled more than 300 million voice calls and over 4,000 terabytes (million megabytes) of data. That is about 200 times the data contained in the entire Library of Congress. EFF cites media reports, including a Dec. 22 Los Angeles Times story indicating that the NSA has had and continues to have direct access to the database, a proprietary tool that AT&T researchers developed and named Daytona.

EFF plans to seek an injunction to halt warrantless information sharing. Both sides are expected to seek independent experts to decide on what documents and information should be withheld from the case because of national security.

A court briefing is scheduled for July 31 to find out whether the government will appeal Thursday's ruling.

In the meantime, Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, is proposing a law to consolidate all of the lawsuits and send them to the secret courts originally charged with approving warrants for wiretapping. EFF lawyers said they are fighting that move and pointed out that multiple lawsuits on a single issue frequently snake their way through the U.S. court system around the same time.

"We hope that today's decision will give the government pause in that regard," EFF attorney Cindy Cohn said during a conference call with reporters Thursday. "Shuffling them all to a secret court is not the right way to go, and as an open and free society, our traditional court system can handle these cases."

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