COMPANIES ACCUSED OF COOPERATING WITH NSA WIRETAPPING By Pete Carey Mercury News
A federal judge in San Francisco was designated Thursday to hear all class-action lawsuits against telecommunications companies that allegedly cooperated with a warrantless government eavesdropping program.
The decision by a federal panel in Washington, D.C., means that 17 cases from 13 federal court districts will be heard in the courtroom of U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker, who recently ruled against the government's demand that a case before him be dismissed immediately because it involved state secrets.
The cases have been brought by citizens and public-interest groups who accuse AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth of illegally cooperating with eavesdropping on the communications of millions of Americans by the National Security Agency.
Case against AT&T
Walker already is presiding over a class-action suit brought against AT&T by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a digital rights group, and four related cases.
He recently ruled against AT&T and the U.S. Department of Justice, which wanted the case dismissed because it involves state secrets, saying it was too early to grant the request. The decision is being appealed by AT&T and the Justice Department.
Walker said the government can't claim the very existence of the call-monitoring program is a secret, when President Bush has admitted authorizing it and the Justice Department issued a lengthy white paper on it. But the allegations that call records were collected has not been confirmed by the government, so he withheld deciding that issue.
EFF contends that AT&T allowed the NSA to illegally monitor the content and review the call records of millions of customers' e-mails and voice communications from a ``secret room'' in a telecommunications center in San Francisco.
Disclosed by technician.
A warrantless wiretapping program by the government was revealed in December by the New York Times. The report prompted lawsuits in Detroit, New York and San Francisco. A former technician at AT&T's San Francisco telecommunications center later disclosed the existence of the NSA's secret room there.
In May, USA Today reported that three telecom companies had given the NSA access to customer call records, triggering many more lawsuits.
BellSouth and Verizon have denied contracting with the government to provide customer call records. AT&T has neither confirmed nor denied the reports.
President Bush has acknowledged authorizing a warrantless communications monitoring program but has said only that it was narrowly targeted and confined to calls in which one party was in the United States. The administration contends that the president's wartime powers give him authority to run an electronic surveillance program without a warrant or Justice Department certification, and that the monitoring is necessary to uncover terror plots and related activity.
Congress is considering legislation that would turn the cases over to a secret federal court that reviews government eavesdropping projects.
In consolidating the 17 cases in San Francisco, the federal panel noted that Walker's court was where the first case was filed. That case is 'significantly advanced,' said the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation, and Walker is 'already well versed in the issues presented by the litigation.'
A case brought by the American Civil Liberties Union in Detroit is not affected, because the ACLU there has sued the government rather than the phone companies.
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