Feb. 2, 2006 – Joining efforts to force the federal court system to consider the legality of the Bush administrationâ€™s warrantless domestic phone taps, a leading privacy-rights group filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of AT&T customers earlier this week. Three other groups have filed lawsuits since the New York Times first exposed the clandestine program late last year.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) filed the latest suit in California District Court Tuesday, charging that the telecommunications giant violated its customersâ€™ privacy rights by opening its records and systems to secret spying by the National Security Agency (NSA). In a statement announcing the legal action, EFF accused the NSA of recklessly snooping on US residents in contravention of existing laws.
"The NSA program is apparently the biggest fishing expedition ever devised, scanning millions of ordinary Americansâ€™ phone calls and emails for â€˜suspiciousâ€™ patterns, and itâ€™s the collaboration of US telecom companies like AT&T that makes it possible," EFF staff attorney Kevin Bankston said.
In its suit, EFF also accuses AT&T of sharing information from a massive database of calls the telecom firm maintains. EFF alleges the companyâ€™s activity violates both customer privacy and long-standing local telecommunications laws. The group is seeking a jury trial to force AT&T to stop sharing information with government intelligence and law enforcement agencies.
The New York Times first broke the domestic NSA surveillance story in December, detailing a 2002 presidential order permitting the NSA to avoid seeking a warrant when eavesdropping on US residents communicating with people overseas during a terrorism investigation. The administration contends that Congress granted Bush the authority to do so when it authorized the "war on terror."
In early January, fourteen legal experts sent a letter to legislators and the Justice Department asserting that the NSA program violates current law and the Constitution. Days earlier, the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service found much the same in a report.
The administration maintains that its intelligence agencies must be unencumbered by the warrant requirements in the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) when pursuing terrorists. The Act, which established special courts to handle such sensitive information in a timely manner, currently grants agents up to 72 hours after surveillance has begun to secure a warrant. Prior to the most recent developments, the FISA system itself was under fire from civil liberties groups decrying it as little more than a rubber stamp on privacy intrusions.
Many privacy advocates, public interest groups and lawmakers from both major political parties have called for a halt to the program over concerns that it directly violates Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches.
In addition to EFF, three other groups â€“ the American Civil Liberties Union, Electronic Privacy Information Clearinghouse and the Center for Constitutional Rights â€“ have suits pending over the NSA domestic spy program.
The federal government has been engaged in a number of new and somewhat novel attempts to gather and catalog information since the September 11 terrorist attacks, including requesting Internet-search records from a number of companies that operate search engines.
Google recently stated that it denied Justice Department demands for user search information out of fear that doing so would violate existing business agreements and the department has since filed suit to force the company to reveal the information. Google is the only company known to have rejected the Departmentâ€™s request for search records, though other firms, including Microsoft, negotiated with DoJ to provide only a portion of what it initially requested.