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Panel to consider merging US telecom surveillance suits

[JURIST] Attorneys for the US government and for plaintiffs asked the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation [official website] Thursday to consolidate more than 20 cases involving telephone companies' roles in the National Security Agency's warrantless domestic surveillance program [JURIST news archive]. The government requested that the cases be consolidated into one civil action in the US District Court for the District of Columbia [official website] so it could invoke the state secrets privilege and seek to have the cases dismissed, while the plaintiffs asked to have District Judge Vaughn Walker [official profile] in San Francisco handle the class-action cases. Earlier this month, Walker rejected [order, PDF] a US Department of Justice (DOJ) motion to dismiss [redacted brief in support of motion, PDF; JURIST report] on state secrets grounds a class-action lawsuit [EFF backgrounder; JURIST report] brought against AT&T. The suit alleged that the telecommunications giant violated citizens' rights to privacy as well as several federal statutes when it allowed the NSA to use its infrastructure to wiretap US citizens with suspected links to terrorism.

The federal government invoked the state secrets privilege [News Media & the Law commentary] established by the US Supreme Court in United States v. Reynolds [opinion text] in only four cases between 1953 and 1976. The Bush administration invoked the privilege 23 times in the four years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, as well as multiple times in the past year. A decision from the panel is expected in three to six weeks. Reuters has more.

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