Wednesday, June 21, 2006

US wants telecom surveillance lawsuits in DC court

US wants telecom surveillance lawsuits in DC court

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Justice Department wants to consolidate at least two dozen lawsuits against the government and Verizon Communications Inc. that involve the National Security Agency's alleged access to telephone customer records.

The government on Monday filed a motion supporting Verizon's request that 20 class-action lawsuits accusing the company of helping the foreign intelligence surveillance program be combined in a single court in Washington.

"Given the national security concerns in this case, the District of Columbia would be the most logical and convenient forum," the filing said.

The Justice Department also asked that five other lawsuits against the U.S. government related to the surveillance program be consolidated and coordinated with the Verizon proceeding.

Government lawyers said they planned to seek dismissal of the lawsuits against Verizon by asserting military and state secrets privileges under U.S. law. Moving the cases to one court would expedite the process while protecting classified information, they said in the filing.

Combining all the cases would "allow the resolution of this threshold matter in the most efficient manner for the courts and the parties while protecting highly-sensitive and classified information, the disclosure of which would be harmful to the national security," the filing said.

Class-action lawsuits were filed against Verizon, AT&T Inc. and BellSouth Corp. after USA Today reported they gave access and turned over call data records to the National Security Agency to help track terrorist plots.

BellSouth has denied turning over records or providing access to the NSA, while Verizon has said that it does not provide the government unfettered access to customer records. AT&T has said it helps when asked by the government but only within the law.

Verizon on May 24 asked the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation, which decides whether to consolidate in one court cases that have been filed in multiple places, to consolidate 20 similar lawsuits that were filed against the company in 14 federal district courts.

In addition to the litigation, the Senate Judiciary Committee is also looking into the surveillance program.

Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican and chairman of the panel, is trying to get U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to testify about the surveillance program but has not yet set a date, a committee aide said.