June 4, 2009

Judge Throws Out Wiretapping Lawsuits

More than three dozen lawsuits filed against some telecommunications companies were tossed out of court on Wednesday when a federal judge found the companies were allegedly taking part in the government's e-mail and telephone eavesdropping program without court approval, The Associated Press reported.

Due to their alleged participation in the once-secret surveillance programs, the judge also ordered officials in Maine, New Jersey, Connecticut, Vermont and Missouri to halt their investigations of the telecommunication companies.

U.S. District Court Judge Vaughn Walker also deferred a decision on whether to sanction the government for refusing to turn over a top secret document in one of the few wiretapping cases still pending.

In July, Congress agreed on new surveillance rules that included protection from legal liability for telecommunications companies that allegedly helped the U.S. spy on Americans without warrants.

In a written ruling on Wednesday, Walker upheld the constitutionality of the new surveillance rules, but lawyers representing the telecom customers said they would appeal the judge's ruling.

Congressional actions didn't prohibit telephone and e-mail customers who believe they were targets of warrantless wiretaps from suing federal government officials, Walker said.

The judge noted that several lawsuits that directly accuse the government, rather than the companies, of wrongdoing are still pending.

Walker also deferred a decision on Wednesday regarding how to deal with the government's continued refusal to turn over an apparent log of telephone calls that the U.S.-based arm of an Islamic charity claims proves it was the subject of warrantless wiretaps.

Release of the document will create "intolerable risks" to national security, the same stance taken by the Bush administration, according to court filings from the Obama administration.

Department of Justice lawyers and attorneys for the charity were ordered to return Sept. 1 for further arguments.

The constitutionality of the warrantless wiretapping program set up during the Bush administration has yet to be argued, and the charity has fought a three-year battle to prove first that it was a surveillance target.

Jon Eisenberg, a lawyer for the charity, said he could prove his clients were eavesdropped through public statements made by officials and that he no longer needs the secret document to show this.

The Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation chapter in Ashland, Ore. sued the government after the Treasury Department accidentally turned over in 2004 a document civil rights lawyers say was a call log showing the charity's telephone conversations were monitored.

The Ashland branch was designated a supporter of terrorism in 2004 and was shut down by the Treasury Department.

The document was returned by Al-Haramain's lawyers when officials discovered the error and a federal judge in Oregon initially barred the charity from using the document to support its lawsuit.

Walker ruled that Al-Haramain's lawyers could now access the document since they have provided enough public government disclosures to support their eavesdropping charges.

Civil liberties groups questioning the legality of the warrantless wiretapping program have focused on the Al-Haramain case since it has become one of several instances where the current administration has taken its cue from the Bush administration in citing national security as justification for keeping secrets.

Attorney General Eric Holder is now reviewing all state secrets used by the Bush administration to protect anti-terrorism programs from lawsuits.

Additionally, the court-ordered release of prisoner-abuse photos is being challenged by the Obama Administration, which is reviving, in a revised form, military tribunals where suspected terrorists have limited access to information.