US judge refuses to derail domestic spying case

Date: 11-18-06

SAN FRANCISCO (AFP) - A federal judge rejected Friday requests from US government and telecom firm lawyers to immediately freeze domestic spying lawsuits while an appeals court considers whether national security would be threatened in trying them.

In the first case involving the White House's authorization of the top-secret warrantless wiretapping program, San Francisco District Court Chief Judge Vaughn Walker refused to put on hold the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) suit against telecommunications giant AT&T for its alleged role in the program.

EFF sued AT&T for with helping the National Security Agency (NSA) to spy on millions of customers by sharing telephone and e-mail data without obtaining warrants.

The NSA conducted the program as part of "war on terror" attempts to uncover threats against the country.

In July Walker rejected arguments by government lawyers that the suit be tossed out on the basis that it is groundless and that its hearing could threaten national security by revealing how authorities gather intelligence.

The judge ruled the interests of justice outweighed the need to protect "state secrets."

The case is being closely followed as a model after a total of 48 lawsuits on the same issue, involving Verizon, Sprint, Bell South, and AT&T, were ordered consolidated before Walker.

On Friday government and telecoms company lawyers asked Walker to immediately put the EFF-AT&T case on hold while their appeal to a separate court to overturn Walker's July ruling is heard.

But Walker again turned them back, leaving the matter to another December 21 hearing.

"I do think that there are matters we can proceed on regarding these cases," Walker told the dozens of attorneys whose suits were consolidated before him.

Walker outlined matters he wanted addressed before the December 21 hearing, at which rival sides would formally argue whether he should stop the proceedings while the government's appeal was considered.

"We would have to insure perfection with regard to each question to make sure each answer doesn't reveal state secrets," Assistant US Attorney Carl Nichols argued in pushing the freeze. "The entire process is fraught with risk."

EFF attorney Cindy Cohn adamantly countered that the NSA practice of snooping on telephone and e-mail communications was now far from secret and that aspects of the cases could safely proceed while the appeal was considered.

"I feel a little like it's Groundhog Day," Cohn told the judge, referring to a comedy film in which the lead character continuously relives the same day. "I'm having to repeat the same arguments over and over again.


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