EFF sues U.S. over NSA surveillance program

Suit names President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney in effort to halt what the group called the "massively illegal" warrantless surveillance of Americans' Internet and telephone communications.

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The Electronic Frontier Foundation filed a lawsuit Thursday against the Bush administration on behalf of AT&T customers to halt what it called the "massively illegal" warrantless surveillance of Americans' Internet and telephone communications.

In addition to suing the National Security Agency, the nonprofit Internet advocacy group also names President George Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Cheney's chief of staff David Addington, and former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, as well as others.

"For years, the NSA has been engaged in a massive and massively illegal fishing expedition through AT&T's domestic networks and databases of customer records," senior staff attorney Kevin Bankston said in a statement. "Our goal in this new case against the government, as in our case against AT&T, is to dismantle this dragnet surveillance program as soon as possible."

The EFF said the evidence it would present is the same evidence central to a class-action lawsuit it filed in 2006 accusing AT&T of opening up its telecommunications facilities to the NSA for use in spying on the phone calls and e-mails of "millions of ordinary Americans." Such a practice violates free speech and privacy rights spelled out by the U.S. Constitution and also runs afoul of federal wiretapping law, the EFF claimed.

The ACLU won a brief victory in a similar case filed against the NSA when a federal judge ruled in 2006 that the NSA's surveillance program "ran roughshod" over Americans' constitutional rights Americans and violated federal wiretapping law. However, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed the suit in 2007 on narrow procedural grounds without addressing the legality of the program. The suit effectively died earlier this year when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to intervene in an appeal.

In July, the Senate approved a bill that would rewrite federal wiretap laws by granting retroactive immunity to telecommunications companies as long as the government claims the request was "lawful" and authorized by the president.

After the EFF's 2006 lawsuit was filed, reports of a secret room in an AT&T building in San Francisco surfaced and have become central to the nonprofit group's litigation.

Although EFF's lawsuit was filed before allegations about the room surfaced, reports of its existence have become central to the nonprofit group's attempts to prove AT&T opened its network to the NSA. Former AT&T employee Mark Klein alleging the company spliced its fiber optic cables and ran a duplicate set of cables to Room 641A at its 611 Folsom Street building.

The deleted portions of a legal brief accidentally released in 2006 sought to offer benign reasons why AT&T would allegedly have a secret room at its downtown San Francisco switching center that would be designed to monitor Internet and telephone traffic. (AT&T has publicly neither confirmed nor denied cooperating with the National Security Agency.)

Initial details of the surveillance program surfaced in late 2005 in a Los Angeles Times article that quoted an unnamed source as saying the NSA has a "direct hookup" into an AT&T database that stores information about all domestic phone calls, including how long they lasted.