Government opts for secrecy in wiretap suit
Tuesday, April 7, 2009
(04-06) 15:26 PDT SAN FRANCISCO — The Obama administration is again invoking government secrecy in defending the Bush administration’s wiretapping program, this time against a lawsuit by AT&T customers who claim federal agents illegally intercepted their phone calls and gained access to their records.
Disclosure of the information sought by the customers, “which concerns how the United States seeks to detect and prevent terrorist attacks, would cause exceptionally grave harm to national security,” Justice Department lawyers said in papers filed Friday in San Francisco.
Kevin Bankston of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a lawyer for the customers, said Monday the filing was disappointing in light of the Obama presidential campaign’s “unceasing criticism of Bush-era secrecy and promise for more transparency.”
In a 2006 lawsuit, the AT&T plaintiffs accused the company of allowing the National Security Agency to intercept calls and e-mails and inspect records of millions of customers without warrants or evidence of wrongdoing.
The suit followed President George W. Bush’s acknowledgement in 2005 that he had secretly authorized the NSA in 2001 to monitor messages between U.S. residents and suspected foreign terrorists without seeking court approval, as required by a 1978 law.
Congress passed a new law last summer permitting the surveillance after Bush allowed some court supervision, the extent of which has not been made public. The law also sought to grant immunity to AT&T and other telecommunications companies from suits by customers accusing them of helping the government spy on them.
Nearly 40 such suits from around the nation, all filed after Bush’s 2005 disclosure, have been transferred to San Francisco and are pending before Chief U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker. He is now reviewing a constitutional challenge to last year’s immunity law, which the Obama administration is defending.
Walker is also considering a challenge to the surveillance program by the Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation, a now-defunct charity that was inadvertently given a government document in 2004, reportedly showing that its lawyers had been wiretapped during an investigation that landed the group on the government’s terrorist list.
The Obama administration is also opposing that suit and has challenged Walker’s order to let Al-Haramain’s lawyers examine the still-classified surveillance document.
The administration’s new filing asks Walker to dismiss a second suit filed in September by AT&T customers that sought to sidestep the telecommunications immunity law by naming only the government, Bush and other top officials as defendants.
Like the earlier suit, the September case relies on a former AT&T technician’s declaration that he saw equipment installed at the company’s San Francisco office to allow NSA agents to copy all incoming e-mails. The plaintiffs’ lawyers say the declaration, and public statements by government officials, revealed a “dragnet” surveillance program that indiscriminately scooped up messages and customer records.
The Justice Department said Friday that government agents monitored only communications in which “a participant was reasonably believed to be associated with al Qaeda or an affiliated terrorist organization.” But proving that the surveillance program did not sweep in ordinary phone customers would require “disclosure of highly classified NSA intelligence sources and methods,” the department said.
Individual customers cannot show their messages were intercepted, and thus have no right to sue, because all such information is secret, government lawyers said. They also said disclosure of whether AT&T took part in the program would tell the nation’s enemies “which channels of communication may or may not be secure.”
E-mail Bob Egelko at email@example.com.