Friday, July 21, 2006

Judge rejects US request on eavesdropping lawsuit

Judge rejects US request on eavesdropping lawsuit
By Adam Tanner

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - A federal judge rejected on Thursday a request from the head of U.S. intelligence and other government officials to dismiss a lawsuit against AT&T which alleges the firm illegally allowed the government to monitor phone conversations and e-mail communications.

AT&T asked the court in late April to dismiss the case, and two weeks later the U.S. government also asked the federal judge to dismiss it, citing its state secrets privilege.

U.S. director of intelligence John Negroponte told the court in a filing that disclosing the information in the case "could be expected to cause exceptionally grave damage to the national security of the United States."

In a 72-page ruling, Judge Vaughn Walker rejected that request regarding a case that has highlighted the domestic spying program acknowledged by President George W. Bush.

"The very subject matter of this action is hardly a secret," the U.S. District Court for Northern California judge wrote. "Public disclosures by the government and AT&T indicate that AT&T is assisting the government to implement some kind of surveillance program."

"The compromise between liberty and security remains a difficult one," he continued. "But dismissing this case at the outset would sacrifice liberty for no apparent enhancement of security."

The judge cited what public officials, including Bush, and the media have already said in public about the eavesdropping program.

"If the government's public disclosures have been truthful, revealing whether AT&T has received a certification to assist in monitoring communication content should not reveal any new information that would assist a terrorist and adversely affect national security," Vaughn wrote.

"Confirming or denying the existence of this program would only affect a terrorist who was insensitive to the publicly disclosed 'terrorist surveillance program' but cared about the alleged program here.

"AT&T could reveal information at the level of generality at which the government has publicly confirmed or denied its monitoring of communication content."

In its February lawsuit the privacy rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation said the program allows the government to eavesdrop on phone calls and read e-mails of millions of Americans without obtaining warrants.

The plaintiffs are seeking an injunction that would order the government to stop the program.