US judge backs government's block of phone records case

A US judge has blocked a lawsuit against telecoms company AT&T on grounds of national security. The case sought to block AT&T from handing over phone records to US authorities.

Parallel cases dealing with the same issue are ongoing in the US and last Friday a San Francisco judge gave a separate, similar case the go ahead. But US District Judge Matthew Kennelly ruled in a Michigan court that this case would be dismissed.

"The court is persuaded that requiring AT&T to confirm or deny whether it has disclosed large quantities of telephone records to the federal government could give adversaries of this country valuable insight into the government's intelligence activities," said Kennelly.

AT&T is accused of passing on the phone records illegally to the National Security Agency (NSA). Kennelly said that he had received a written statement in the case from NSA director Lt General Keith Alexander and from National Intelligence Director John Negroponte.

The case was brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on behalf of several activists and author Studs Terkel who said that their constitutional rights had been infringed by the passing on of phone data.

The judge in the San Francisco case, which was brought by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, ruled that the case would not endanger national security because allegations of information being passed were so widely reported in the press. Kennelly said that news reports were speculation and had not been confirmed by security agencies or by AT&T.

"A private company – AT&T – should not be able to escape accountability for violating a federal statute and the privacy of their customers on the basis that a program widely discussed in public is secret," said ACLU of Illinois legal director Harvey Grossman. "Members of Congress publicly discussed the program of gathering data from telephone companies without lawful authorization in violation of existing federal law. "

"We believe that innocent Americans – including our clients in this case – should have a venue through the courts for vindicating their rights against the abuses and overreach of the executive branch.

Kennelly said that some of the information provided by Alexander and Negroponte was classified. He claimed that his decision was not based on the classified information and that he would issue a memorandum relating to the classified information which would also be classified and "unavailable for inspection by the public".

US senator Arlen Specter has proposed a plan to hear any challenges to the NSA's activities in a secret court under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.