gaveldecision.jpgA federal appeals court in San Francisco Thursday upheld a U.S. law that retroactively protects telecommunications companies from being sued for aiding the government in alleged warrantless wiretapping.

The law was passed by Congress in 2008 in response to lawsuits filed by citizens against the companies for allegedly assisting the National Security Agency in eavesdropping on telephone calls and e-mails following the 2001 terrorist attacks on the nation.

It amended the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, known as FISA, to give companies immunity from being sued for assisting intelligence agencies with anti-terrorist activities between 2001 and 2007.

A panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the law did not intrude on the role of the judiciary or violate the constitutional due process rights of individuals who filed lawsuits.

The panel dismissed 33 lawsuits filed in 2006 against companies including AT&T Corp., Verizon Communications Inc., Spring Nextel Corp. and BellSouth Corp. after news reports of the surveillance surfaced in late 2005.

President George W. Bush revealed in early 2006 that he had authorized a terrorist surveillance program to detect and intercept al Qaeda communications, but did not give details of the program.

The lawsuits were filed in various courts around the country and were transferred to U.S. District Court in San Francisco for purposes of judicial efficiency because the first of the cases was filed there.

But in a related ruling, the 9th Circuit panel revived a separate lawsuit in which five Californians led by Carolyn Jewel of Petaluma sought to sue the U.S. government rather than the companies for alleged dragnet government surveillance of their communications.

The appeals court said the five telephone customers had made adequately specific and concrete claims to justify continuation of their case.

Among other allegations, the plaintiffs contended they had evidence from a former AT&T technician that the company routed copies of Internet traffic at its Folsom Street facility in San Francisco to a secret room controlled by the National Security Agency.

The appeals court sent the lawsuit back to federal court in San Francisco for further proceedings, including consideration of the government’s argument that it is protected from court scrutiny because national security secrets are at stake.

Cindy Cohn, a lawyer with the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation who represented the plaintiffs, said she was disappointed with the first ruling but pleased with the second one.

“Since the dragnet spying program first came to light, we have been fighting for the chance to have a court determine whether it is legal,” Cohn said.

“Today, the 9th Circuit has given us that chance, and we look forward to proving the program is an unconstitutional and illegal violation of the rights of millions of ordinary Americans,” she said.

The case was formerly handled at the trial court level by now-retired U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker, but will now be assigned to a new judge.

Julia Cheever, Bay City News

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