July 27, 2006

Judges weigh combining US telecom spying suits

By Andrew Stern

CHICAGO (Reuters) - Both sides in lawsuits alleging that
telephone companies unlawfully cooperated in a secret U.S.
government spying program argued on Thursday that a federal
court panel should give the cases to a single judge.

U.S. Deputy Assistant Attorney General Carl Nichols urged
the panel to transfer the roughly two-dozen cases filed around
the United States to the federal court in Washington, D.C.,
while a plaintiff's attorney asked to have a San Francisco
judge handle the class-action cases.

Nichols said consolidating the case will let the government
ask that the suits be dismissed collectively because they might
disclose secrets that could jeopardize national security.

With suits in numerous courts, "we are faced with pressing
the state secrets privilege around the country," Nichols told
the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation.

He said that would be time-consuming and that "transporting
these materials through airports ... increases the risk of

The panel is expected to render a decision within three to
six weeks.

The government has already intervened in several cases
against AT&T, Verizon Communications, and BellSouth Corp.,
asserting a "military and state secrets privilege" to argue
that they should be thrown out.

Elaborate measures had to be taken to brief each judge on
classified information, including affidavits from the U.S.
intelligence chief John Negroponte and National Security Agency
head Lt. Gen. Keith Alexander, Nichols said.

Earlier this month, U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker in
San Francisco denied the government's dismissal motion. He said
the government had disclosed the spying program, involving
intercepts of calls made overseas, and AT&T had admitted its

President Bush has described the program as necessary to
ferret out potential terrorist plots.

The plaintiffs' lawyer in the San Francisco case urged the
panel to give the consolidated cases to Walker, who has also
invited the government to appeal his earlier ruling against a

"Judge Walker has already seen the classified information,"
said attorney Cindy Cohn of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
If the cases are transferred to Washington, a new judge would
have to be briefed, which Cohn said would increase the risk
that secrets could be revealed.

Cohn said after the hearing that the suit simply sought to
stop the sharing of private telephone conversations with the
government without benefit of court-approved warrants.

She said violations of telecommunications law call for
fines of up to $1,000 for each violation, which could quickly
mount up to billions of dollars given the millions of telephone
subscribers as potential plaintiffs.