Lawsuits Against Telecom Companies Who Were Accused of Being Involved in Eavesdropping Program Dismissed

In Civil Liberties on June 4, 2009 at 7:59 am

U.S. District Court Judge Vaughn Walker dismissed dozens of lawsuits against telecom companies who were allegedly involved in the federal eavesdropping program:

A federal judge on Wednesday tossed out more than three dozen lawsuits filed against the nation’s telecommunications companies for allegedly taking part in the government’s e-mail and telephone eavesdropping program that was done without court approval. In addition, he ordered officials in Maine, New Jersey, Connecticut, Vermont and Missouri to halt their investigations of the telecommunication companies for their alleged participation in the once-secret surveillance programs. 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.

The judge’s dismissals of most of the lawsuits were widely expected after Congress in July 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. Walker upheld the constitutionality of the new surveillance rules in a written ruling Wednesday. Lawyers representing the telecom customers said they would appeal the judge’s ruling.

The judge said congressional actions didn’t prohibit telephone and e-mail customers who believe they were targets of warrantless wiretaps from suing federal government officials, whom he called “the primary actors in the alleged wiretapping activities.”

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

Also Wednesday, Walker deferred a decision on 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 says shows it was the subject of warrantless wiretaps.

The Obama administration insists in court filings that release of the document will create “intolerable risks” to national security, the same stance taken by the Bush administration.

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

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

Outside court, charity lawyer Jon Eisenberg said that he can prove his clients were eavesdropped through public statements made by officials and that he no longer needs the secret document to make his case.

The now defunct Ashland, Ore. chapter of the Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation sued the government after the Treasury Department accidentally turned over in 2004 a document civil rights lawyers say was a call log showing telephone conversations were monitored. The Treasury Department shut down the Ashland branch in 2004 and designated it a supporter of terrorism.

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

The case was transferred to Walker in San Francisco and he ruled that that Al-Haramain’s lawyers can now access the document since they have provided enough public government disclosures to support their eavesdropping claims.

The Al-Haramain case has been a focal point for civil liberties groups questioning the legality of the warrantless wiretapping program, and 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 has ordered a review of all state secrets used by the Bush administration to protect anti-terrorism programs from lawsuits. But the Obama administration is also fighting the court-ordered release of prisoner-abuse photos and is reviving, in a revised form, military tribunals where suspected terrorists have limited access to information.

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