Justice Dept. asks to drop 40 suits

September 23, 2008 2:00:31 PM PDT
The U.S. Justice Department has asked a federal judge in San Francisco to dismiss about 40 domestic surveillance lawsuits in the wake of a new law protecting telecommunications companies from such suits.

Government lawyers said in a filing late Friday that dismissal of the lawsuits is "vital to the public interest" and is authorized by an amendment to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

The amendment was enacted by Congress in July and is intended to give telecommunications companies retroactive immunity from lawsuits alleging that they illegally aided the government in warrantless surveillance of Americans' telephone calls and e-mails.

U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker is scheduled to hold a hearing Dec. 2 on the motion for dismissal.

The more than three dozen lawsuits were filed in courts around the nation beginning in 2006 and were consolidated in Walker's court.

The government filing says the FISA amendment reflects "Congress's fundamental policy judgment that burdensome litigation should not proceed against providers that may have assisted the government in unique historical circumstances after 9/11 to detect and prevent another catastrophic attack on the United States."

Meanwhile, lawyers for telephone company customers plan to challenge the constitutionality of the amendment and have until next month to file their opposition.

Five customers, including four from the Bay Area, also filed a separate lawsuit last week against the Bush administration rather than telephone companies. The suit contends the government is conducting ongoing "dragnet surveillance" of phone and e-mail communications.


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