Judges rule that citizens can sue the NSA for wiretapping, but not telecom companies.
The National Security Agency in Fort Meade, Maryland. (Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images)
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco unanimously says a 2008 law granting telecommunications companies legal immunity for helping the National Security Agency with an eavesdropping program is constitutional.

Congress amended the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, to include protection from legal liability for telecommunications companies that allegedly helped the U.S. spy on Americans without warrants.

The appeal consolidated 33 cases filed against various telecom companies, including AT&T, Sprint Nextel and Verizon Communications Inc. filed on behalf of those companies’ consumers.

The plaintiffs, represented by lawyers from the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union, accuse the companies of violating the law and the privacy of its customers by collaborating with NSA on intelligence gathering.

“I’m very disappointed. I think the court reaches to try to put lipstick on a pig here,” said Cindy Cohn, legal director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, who argued the case before the panel. “I think what Congress did was an abdication of its duty to protect people from illegal surveillance.”

In its ruling, the court noted comments made by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence regarding the legal immunity’s role in helping the government gather intelligence.

“It emphasized that electronic intelligence gathering depends in great part on cooperation from private companies … and that if litigation were allowed to proceed against persons allegedly assisting in such activities, ‘the private sector might be unwilling to cooperate with lawful government requests in the future,'” Judge M. Margaret McKeown.

Thursday did not bring all bad news for plaintiffs challenging the government’s surveillance efforts.

In a separate opinion on Thursday, a three-judge panel of the court revived two other lawsuits that challenged the warrantless surveillance program.

Two groups of telecom customers sued the NSA for violating their privacy by collecting Internet data from AT&T from telecom companies in the surveillance program authorized by President George W. Bush.

Government lawyers have moved to stop such cases, arguing that defending the program in court would jeopardize national security.

The suits will be sent back to U.S. District Court in San Francisco.

  • Anonymous

    “that [surveillance] capability at any time could be turned around on the American people and no American would have any privacy left, such [is] the capability to monitor everything: telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn’t matter. There would be no place to hide. If this government ever became a tyranny, if a dictator ever took charge in this country, the technological capacity that the intelligence community has given the government could enable it to impose total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight back, because the most careful effort to combine together in resistance to the government, no matter how privately it was done, is within the reach of the government to know. Such is the capability of this technology …”I don’t want to see this country ever go across the bridge. I know the capacity that is there to make tyranny total in America, and we must see to it that this agency [NSA] and all agencies that possess this technology operate within the law and under proper supervision, so that we never cross over that abyss. That is the abyss from which there is no return.” 
    — Senator Frank Church (D-Idaho), 1975, quoted in James Bamford, “The Puzzle Palace”

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