Appeals court may let NSA lawsuits proceed

Panel peppers government attorneys with sharp questions and suggests that two cases alleging illegal surveillance may be allowed to continue.

SAN FRANCISCO--A federal appeals court on Wednesday appeared unwilling to end a pair of lawsuits that claim the Bush administration engaged in widespread illegal surveillance of Americans.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals repeatedly pressed Gregory Garre, the Bush administration's deputy solicitor general, to justify his requests to toss out the suits on grounds they could endanger national security by possibly revealing "state secrets."

Judge Harry Pregerson wondered: "We just have to take the word of members of the executive branch that it's a state secret. That's what you're saying, isn't it?"

A moment later Judge Michael Hawkins suggested that granting the request could mean "abdication" of our duties.

AT&T switching<br /> center in downtown San Francisco" border="0" style="border:1px solid #000;" />
Credit: Declan McCullagh/CNET News.com
A room in this AT&T switching
center in downtown San Francisco
at 611 Folsom St. is alleged to
be a place where the National
Security Agency taps Internet and
telephone communications. AT&T
has neither confirmed nor denied
these allegations, which surfaced
in a lawsuit filed by the
Electronic Frontier Foundation.

At the heart of both cases is the U.S. Justice Department's argument that any lawsuit claiming illegal activity on behalf of AT&T and the National Security Agency--even if the eavesdropping is known to have taken place--cannot proceed because it could let enemies and terrorists know how the government's surveillance apparatus works.

It "could compromise the sources, methods and operational details of our intelligence gathering capabilities," Solicitor General Garre said.

In the first case, called Hepting v. AT&T, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and other attorneys had filed a class action lawsuit against AT&T saying it unlawfully opened its networks to the NSA. Last summer, U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker in San Francisco ruled that it could proceed.

The second case, Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation v. President Bush, is unique: it involves a classified document that the U.S. Treasury Department accidentally turned over to an attorney for the foundation. The top-secret document showed, according to the group, "Al-Haramain and its attorneys had been subjected to warrantless surveillance in violation of (federal law)." They responded by filing another lawsuit in February 2006 alleging violations of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

The Justice Department says the Al-Haramain case must be thrown out because it, too, could endanger state secrets. The foundation's attorneys must not even be allowed to refer to it, government attorney Thomas Bondy said Wednesday, because their "mental recollections of the documents are also out of the case."

"I'm feeling like Alice in Wonderland," replied Judge M. Margaret McKeown.

While no decision was announced Wednesday, and a final ruling might not be reached for months, a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit pressed prosecutors to justify asking that the case be dismissed based on declarations submitted by senior Bush administration officials. (All three judges are Democratic appointees.)

"The bottom line here is that once the executive declares that certain activity is a state secret, that's the end of it?" Pregerson asked. "No cases, no litigation, absolute immunity? The king can do no wrong?"

 

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