A federal judge in San Francisco today kept alive a five-year-old lawsuit in which several citizens claim the U.S. National Security Agency conducts unconstitutional “dragnet surveillance” of Americans’ communications.
The lawsuit was filed against the NSA and other government agencies in 2008 by five Californians led by Carolyn Jewel of Petaluma.
It was based partly on allegations by a former AT&T Corp. technician, Mark Klein, who claimed the telephone company in 2003 began routing a copy of telephone and Internet communications traffic to a secret room controlled by the NSA at an AT&T facility in San Francisco.
In today’s ruling, U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White turned down a Justice Department bid to dismiss the lawsuit on general grounds that allowing the lawsuit to proceed could endanger national security.
At the same time, however, the judge cautioned that he might conclude at a later stage that the case could not continue because specific evidence sought by the plaintiffs could jeopardize security.
White also said he will ask both sides to file briefs on the impact on the lawsuit of “the recent disclosure of the government’s continuing surveillance activities.”
Disclosures about alleged NSA surveillance were made last month by the Guardian and other newspapers on the basis of documents purportedly provided by former NSA contract employee Edward Snowden.
White also declined a government request to stay proceedings in the lawsuit.
“The subject matter and legal questions presented by this lawsuit are timely,” the judge wrote.
“To the extent recent events involving the public disclosure of relevant, and previously classified, information bear on the future course of the litigation, the Court shall require that the parties submit further briefing to address these issues,” White said.
White scheduled a hearing on Aug. 23 to set a schedule for the filing of future briefs in the case.
Cindy Cohn, legal director of the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation, which represented the plaintiffs, praised the ruling.
“The court rightly found that the traditional legal system can determine the legality of the mass, dragnet surveillance of innocent Americans and rejected the government’s invocation of the state secrets privilege to have the case dismissed,” Cohn said.
The state secrets doctrine allows the government to refuse to participate in cases that could endanger national security.
The Justice Department had argued that lawsuit should be dismissed because the evidence sought by the plaintiffs was protected by the state secrets privilege.
But White said the case was governed by provisions of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act rather than by the secrets doctrine.
White also refused to dismiss a similar lawsuit filed against the government in 2007 by four women from Brooklyn.
Julia Cheever, Bay City News