By Arshad Mohammed
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 21, 2006; A09
A federal judge yesterday rejected the government's effort to throw out a lawsuit about its warrantless surveillance program, arguing that a dismissal of the case would restrict civil liberties without strengthening national security.
The class-action suit against AT&T Inc., filed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation in January, alleges that the nation's largest phone company collaborated with the federal government in an illegal domestic spying program to monitor Americans' phone calls and e-mails.
The government, which has defended the legality of what it has called a "terrorist surveillance program" without revealing many details about its workings, asked U.S. District Judge Vaughn R. Walker to dismiss the case, arguing that it would divulge state secrets and damage national security.
In his ruling, Walker wrote that he saw no "reasonable danger" of harming national security by proceeding with the case, that its subject was "hardly a secret" and that the court had a constitutional duty to decide matters brought before it.
"To defer to a blanket assertion of secrecy here would be to abdicate that duty, particularly because the very subject matter of this litigation has been so publicly aired," Walker wrote. "The compromise between liberty and security remains a difficult one. But dismissing this case at the outset would sacrifice liberty for no apparent enhancement of security."
Walker, who was appointed to the bench in 1989 by President George H.W. Bush and serves as chief judge for the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, also rejected a separate motion by AT&T to dismiss the case.
In separate statements, AT&T, based in San Antonio, and the Justice Department said they were studying the ruling and considering their next steps.
"At AT&T, we prize our customers' privacy and we also recognize our obligation to assist law enforcement agencies," company spokesman Michael Coe said. "AT&T is fully committed to protecting our customers' privacy, and we would not provide customer information to any government agency except as specifically authorized under the law."
Robert Fram, the lawyer who argued the case for the San Francisco nonprofit privacy group, hailed the verdict as a victory.
"Judge Walker clearly took seriously his responsibility to take a hard look at alleged violations of civil liberties," Fram said. Walker appeared to take the view that "there doesn't seem to be any benefit to national security to trying to suppress something that the whole world already knows," Fram said.
The National Security Agency's eavesdropping program, launched after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and revealed in news reports last December, allows the NSA to intercept telephone calls and e-mails between the United States and locations overseas without court approval if one of the parties is suspected of terrorist links.
It is the focus of several lawsuits and months of wrangling between the administration and Congress over its legality.
Last week, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and the administration agreed on proposed legislation that would allow President Bush to submit the program to the government's secret terrorism and intelligence court to review its legality. Other lawmakers have criticized that deal, saying it would provide insufficient oversight.
Staff writer Dan Eggen and staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.