COMPANIES ACCUSED OF COOPERATING WITH NSA WIRETAPPING
By Pete Carey
A federal judge in San Francisco was designated Thursday to hear all
class-action lawsuits against telecommunications companies that
allegedly cooperated with a warrantless government eavesdropping
The decision by a federal panel in Washington, D.C., means that 17
cases from 13 federal court districts will be heard in the courtroom
of U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker, who recently ruled against the
government's demand that a case before him be dismissed immediately
because it involved state secrets.
The cases have been brought by citizens and public-interest groups who
accuse AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth of illegally cooperating with
eavesdropping on the communications of millions of Americans by the
National Security Agency.
Case against AT&T
Walker already is presiding over a class-action suit brought against
AT&T by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a digital rights
group, and four related cases.
He recently ruled against AT&T and the U.S. Department of Justice,
which wanted the case dismissed because it involves state secrets,
saying it was too early to grant the request. The decision is being
appealed by AT&T and the Justice Department.
Walker said the government can't claim the very existence of the
call-monitoring program is a secret, when President Bush has admitted
authorizing it and the Justice Department issued a lengthy white paper
on it. But the allegations that call records were collected has not
been confirmed by the government, so he withheld deciding that issue.
EFF contends that AT&T allowed the NSA to illegally monitor the
content and review the call records of millions of customers' e-mails
and voice communications from a ``secret room'' in a
telecommunications center in San Francisco.
Disclosed by technician.
A warrantless wiretapping program by the government was revealed in
December by the New York Times. The report prompted lawsuits in
Detroit, New York and San Francisco. A former technician at AT&T's San
Francisco telecommunications center later disclosed the existence of
the NSA's secret room there.
In May, USA Today reported that three telecom companies had given the
NSA access to customer call records, triggering many more lawsuits.
BellSouth and Verizon have denied contracting with the government to
provide customer call records. AT&T has neither confirmed nor denied
President Bush has acknowledged authorizing a warrantless
communications monitoring program but has said only that it was
narrowly targeted and confined to calls in which one party was in the
United States. The administration contends that the president's
wartime powers give him authority to run an electronic surveillance
program without a warrant or Justice Department certification, and
that the monitoring is necessary to uncover terror plots and related
Congress is considering legislation that would turn the cases over to
a secret federal court that reviews government eavesdropping projects.
In consolidating the 17 cases in San Francisco, the federal panel
noted that Walker's court was where the first case was filed. That
case is 'significantly advanced,' said the Judicial Panel on
Multidistrict Litigation, and Walker is 'already well versed in the
issues presented by the litigation.'
A case brought by the American Civil Liberties Union in Detroit is not
affected, because the ACLU there has sued the government rather than
the phone companies.
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