July 20, 2006

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

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

"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.