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1/19/2007
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Lawsuits, Questions Follow NSA Surveillance Approval

ACLU and EFF lawyers put pressure on the government and telecommunication companies in the aftermath of the warrantless wiretapping controversy.

Court approval for the National Security Agency's terrorist survelliance program has triggered lawsuits from some consumer advocacy groups.

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said on Wednesday that the Bush administration will reverse its stance on domestic spying and instead seek court approval for wiretaps and other surveillance measures. Details of the approval haven't been released. U.S. leaders are citing security reasons for not providing information about standards for deciding whether to investigate someone -- then or now.

A spokesperson for the consumer rights group the Electronic Frontier Foundation said many questions remain.

"We still have more questions than answers at this point," said Rebecca Jeschke with the EFF during an interview Friday. "We don't even know if there's still illegal activity going on now, but there's always past behavior, so even if, somehow, all the issues were resolved -- which we don't know that at all yet -- we're still trying to figure out what, in fact, has happened. It certainly wouldn't affect a lawsuit about past behavior."

The government and telecommunications providers staunchly defend that all of their actions have been legal. They refuse to provide details, citing national security reasons, but supporters of the program have argued that President Bush has broad authority to authorize such activities at home to protect the country during war.

The EFF is involved in one of dozens of class action lawsuits alleging that Bush doesn't have authority to authorize spying on Americans without approval from the secret court that issues warrants under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

AT&T also has been targeted in the lawsuit, which isn't likely to go away unless a judge throws it out. If there are several lawsuits, they may be consolidated one broad motion.

In the meantime, some of the company's own shareholders have begun a campaign to demand that AT&T explain its involvement. They've introduced a resolution for consideration at AT&T's stockholder meeting in April. It asks the company's management to explain what steps it is taking to ensure customer privacy and to disclose how much money it has spent on collaborating with the NSA program.

The As You Sow Foundation, a group that says its mission is to promote socially responsible investment, is leading the effort. The group is demanding information from telecom provider Verizon as well.

In its defense, AT&T is asking the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission for permission to exclude the resolution from its proxy statement, claiming it would interfere with business and the company should not have to divulge information because of state secrets privileges, according to a statement released by the groups pushing for the resolution.

As You Sow argues that shareholders deserve an explanation because the activities could have created financial liability and damaged the company's reputation.

The American Civil Liberties Union is joining that campaign. The ACLU also sent representatives to a BellSouth shareholders meeting to raise the issue, appealed to the Federal Communications Commission to intercede and has asked utility oversight commissions in 23 states to investigate possible violations of state laws. The group also is involved in one of the related lawsuits.

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