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DOJ asks federal court to block state probes of NSA domestic spying

[JURIST] The US Department of Justice (DOJ) [official website] asked a federal district judge Thursday to block New Jersey, Vermont, Maine, Missouri, and Connecticut from investigating potential violations of state consumer privacy laws in the controversial warrantless domestic surveillance program [JURIST news archive], arguing that the state secrets privilege doctrine bars the state governments from subpoenaing ten telecommunication companies to determine what information they passed onto the National Security Agency (NSA) [official website]. DOJ lawyers told Chief Judge Vaughn Walker of the US District Court of Northern California [official website] that the disclosure would harm national security and interfere with foreign affairs. New Jersey First Assistant Attorney General Anne Milgram countered [brief, PDF; press release] on behalf of all five states that "neither the state secrets privilege nor any federal statute or Executive Order" allows the federal government to prevent state officials from conducting an investigation, adding that the state secrets privilege may only protect information from disclosure.

Walker is also currently presiding over a class action lawsuit [EFF case backgrounder; JURIST report] challenging the legality of the Bush administration's domestic surveillance program. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) [advocacy website] brought the class action against AT&T [corporate website] in January 2006, alleging that the company had unlawfully provided the NSA with access to its facilities and resources to unconstitutionally spy on "millions of ordinary Americans." In July 2006, the DOJ motioned to dismiss the case citing the state secrets privilege, which Walker denied [JURIST report] on the grounds that the broad media coverage of the surveillance program had neutralized any danger of disclosing state secrets. The DOJ has appealed the ruling [JURIST report] to the Ninth Circuit, which will hear the arguments in August. AP has more.

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