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Supreme Court closes door on warrantless eavesdropping suit

After bouncing around the courts for years, the U.S.'s highest court puts an end to the case that aimed to hold AT&T liable for letting the government spy on people's phone calls and emails.

Evan Vucci

The long-standing warrantless spying case ended at the hands of the Supreme Court today. After six years of working its way up through the courts, the Electronic Frontier Foundation's lawsuit against the National Security Agency -- which aimed to hold telecom companies liable for allowing government eavesdropping on U.S. residents -- was terminated.

The Supreme Court declined to review a lower court ruling on the case today, closing the door on further appeals. Its decision did not address the merits of the case.

Hepting v. AT&T was a class-action suit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and EFF in 2006. It claimed that AT&T was letting the government wiretap resident's phone calls and spy on emails without necessary warrants or notifications.

"We're disappointed in the Supreme Court's decision not to review Hepting v. AT&T since it lets the telecommunications companies off the hook for betraying their customers' trust and handing their communications and communications records to the NSA without a warrant," EFF's Legal Director Cindy Cohn said in an email statement.

The legal tangle began when the New York Times reported in late 2005 that the president had authorized the NSA to conduct wiretaps, allegedly involving Americans' conversations and Internet communications, without a court order. The news ultimately led to proposed changes to a 1978 law known as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA.

FISA required investigators to obtain a warrant from a secret court before conducting wiretapping on international communications when at least one end is located in the United States. The NSA's terrorist surveillance program, confirmed by President George W. Bush after the New York Times report, did not receive the FISA court's approval prior to its start. However, in 2008 Congress passed a retroactive immunity law for telecom companies that cooperated with the government during that time called the FISA Amendment Act.

Despite Hepting v. AT&T coming to a close, EFF is working on a similar case called Jewel v. NSA. That case targets federal agencies and government officials who were involved in warrantless wiretapping.

"We continue to try to stop the spying in our suit against the NSA itself, called Jewel v. NSA, which is set for a hearing in mid-December," Cohn said in the statement. "The government still claims that this massive program of surveillance of Americans is a state secret, but after eleven years and multiple Congressional reports, public admissions and media coverage, the only place that this program hasn't been seriously considered is in the courts -- to determine whether it's legal or constitutional. We look forward to rectifying that."