Judge puts US phone spying case on hold!

SAN FRANCISCO – A federal judge put on hold a domestic spying lawsuit against AT and T to allow time to consolidate dozens of such pending cases against telecom companies in a single US court.

US District Court Judge Vaughn Walker said during a hearing that he expected the stay of proceedings to last until late September or early October.

The judge went on to suggest that former Central Intelligence Agency director James Woolsey be recruited to oversee handling of sensitive evidence once the litigation gets back under way.

Walker’s ruling disappointed AT and T and US government lawyers who wanted the lawsuit halted indefinitely while they tried to convince an appeals court to throw the case out in the interest of national security.

The decision also fell short of what the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) wanted, which was to continue apace with the suit it filed against AT and T in San Francisco federal court on January 31, 2006.

“It is a situation where neither side got exactly what they were asking for going in,” EFF attorney Kurt Opsahl told AFP. “We certainly wanted to get going on things.”

The EFF suit charged AT and T with helping to spy on millions of customers by sharing telephone and e-mail data with the US National Security Agency without proper legal authority.

Federal lawyers intervened before AT and T even responded in court to the charge.

Government attorneys urged Walker to reject the suit on the basis that it was groundless and that its hearing could threaten national security by revealing how authorities gather intelligence.

Walker refused last month to toss out the case and US Department of Justice lawyers asked the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Northern California to override the judge’s decision.

The appellate court had yet to indicate whether it will consider the government’s request, which rival attorneys expected would make its way to the US Supreme Court.

AT and T has neither confirmed nor denied sharing its customers’ phone, e-mail and Internet records with authorities.

It said such a suit should be brought against the government itself and that the existing case was based on unsubstantiated media reports.

US Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte and NSA chief Keith Alexander have argued in court filings that a trial in the case could cause “exceptionally grave damage” to national security.

Walker countered in a ruling that the presidential power to squash cases in the name of “state secret” had limits.

“The compromise between liberty and security remains a difficult one,” Walker wrote. “But dismissing this case at the outset would sacrifice liberty for no apparent enhancement of security.”

US President George W. Bush authorized the collection of “one-end foreign” telephone calls and e-mails to “counter the Al-Qaeda threat,” Negroponte indicated in court papers.