New Jersey Fights Bid to Block Phone Probe

By BETH DeFALCO, Associated Press Writer

New Jersey has the right to obtain information about a federal domestic surveillance program because that program is no longer a secret, the state argued in response to federal efforts to quash its investigation.

The Justice Department wants to throw "an impenetrable cloak insulating the federal government's domestic surveillance activities from all judicial scrutiny," acting New Jersey Attorney General Anne Milgram said in a statement Monday.

New Jersey prosecutors subpoenaed 10 phone companies in May because of suspicion that state consumer protection laws may have been violated if phone companies were turning over records to the National Security Agency.

The federal government sued the New Jersey attorney general's office in federal court June 14, claiming compliance with the state's subpoenas or even acknowledging the existence of such a program would threaten national security.

The state in its response, filed late Friday, argued: "There is no secret for the state secret privilege to protect."

The program monitors international phone calls and e-mails to or from the United States involving people the government suspects have terrorist links. A secret court has been set up to grant warrants for such surveillance, but the government says it can't always wait for a court to take action.

The federal government considers the program vital to fighting terrorism, but critics say it unconstitutionally gathers private information.

Federal officials have objected to efforts by several states and civil liberties groups to investigate or shut down the NSA program. Most recently, it filed a lawsuit against a Connecticut state agency last week and against Maine utility regulators last month.

The courts have been split on that argument: A judge in Chicago agreed with the government that state secrets would be exposed if a case there went forward there, but another judge in San Francisco said the surveillance is already so well known that there is was no danger of spilling secrets.

A judge in Detroit last month ordered an immediate end to the program, saying it violates free speech and privacy rights as well as the separation of powers, but the plaintiffs agreed to keep the ruling on hold until the judge decides whether to issue a stay.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press.

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Beth DeFalco, AP
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