ACLU Fights Government Legal Maneuvers to Delay Challenges to Datamining

Affiliate: ACLU of Maine
January 25, 2007 12:00 am

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Lawsuits Involving Public Utility Commissions Should Remain in States Where Challenges Occur, Group Argues

MIAMI, FL – The American Civil Liberties Union today argued before a federal panel that lawsuits against telecommunications companies over unlawful wiretapping by the National Security Agency should remain in the five states where the challenges were filed. ACLU affiliates in those states brought actions before local Public Utility Commissions that resulted in lawsuits that were heard today by the Multidistrict Litigation Panel as the government sought to get the cases consolidated and transferred to California.

“The lawsuit against the Maine PUC should be kept in Maine where the challenge was filed and where the affected population lives,” said Zachary Heiden, a staff attorney with the Maine Civil Liberties Union who argued before the panel. “The government is seeking to evade responsibility by having disparate lawsuits in individual states merged and moved across the country. Telephone customers in every state have the right to know whether their personal privacy has been violated.”

In an effort to expose the depth of the NSA’s unlawful wiretapping, ACLU affiliates in 24 states asked state PUCs to investigate the phone companies and their compliance with the program. In Maine, Connecticut, Vermont and Missouri the government filed federal lawsuits to prevent the PUCs from investigating the program. The government also filed a separate lawsuit in New Jersey to stop subpoenas about the program. The phone companies, in conjunction with the federal government, have moved to consolidate and transfer the cases to California.

“The government is trying to delay judicial decisions in these cases by having them consolidated, transferred and stayed pending an appeals court ruling in a related case in California,” said Barry Steinhardt, Director of the ACLU’s Technology and Liberty Project. “If the government gets its way it may be more than a year before the American people can learn whether their privacy will be protected.”

More than 40 cases posing challenges to telephone companies’ use of consumer data in compliance with the NSA’s program have been consolidated in California. The ACLU of Illinois and the ACLU of Northern California originally brought two of the cases.

The ACLU will continue to pursue complaints against PUCs in numerous other states seeking investigations as more information about the illegal program comes to light through Congressional hearings or other developments.

Just last week, the Bush administration conceded that the judicial branch has a role in overseeing surveillance by the NSA. However, the ACLU expressed skepticism that the changes announced by the administration comply with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and the Constitution.

“Telecommunications companies in America have an extraordinary amount of data on the average person,” added Steinhardt. “This program unlawfully allows telecoms to share that data with no limits on how it is used, who is using it or how long it will be retained. We are seeking the answers to these questions.”

In a separate case against the NSA filed on behalf of journalists, lawyers and academics, the ACLU obtained an injunction requiring the president to shut down the illegal NSA spying program. In the first and so far the only court opinion on the legality of the warrantless wiretap program, a district court declared the program unconstitutional and called for an immediate halt to this abuse of presidential power.

The government has appealed the lower court’s decision and there will be a hearing before Judges Alice Batchelder, Ronald Gilman and Julia Gibbons of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals on January 31 in Cincinnati, OH. Ann Beeson, Associate Legal Director of the ACLU, will argue on behalf of the organization.

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