SAN FRANCISCO (AFP) — A non-profit Internet rights group on Thursday filed a lawsuit against President George W. Bush and others in his administration for the "massively illegal" surveillance of emails and telephone calls without court warrants.
The suit was filed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), which took the administration to task for what it argued is "illegal surveillance of millions of ordinary Americans."
EFF lawyers filed a suit against AT&T in 2006 charging the US telecoms giant had opened up its network to National Security Agency (NSA) agents without proper court-approved warrants.
This year Congress passed legislation granting US telecommunications firms immunity from domestic spying lawsuits.
Wrangling about the constitutionality of that act has stalled the AT&T lawsuit as well as a slew of similar litigation aimed at other telecommunications firms.
EFF lawyers said Thursday the new lawsuit is aimed squarely at government officials, thereby sidestepping the immunity act.
"Our goal in this new case against the government, as in our case against AT&T, is to dismantle this dragnet surveillance program as soon as possible," said EFF senior staff attorney Kevin Bankston.
"For years, the NSA has been engaged in a massive and massively illegal fishing expedition through AT&T's domestic networks and databases of customer records."
The suit names Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, as well as attorneys general, the NSA director and 100 "john does" yet to be identified.
It accuses them of personally violating the US constitution and a host of federal laws by helping orchestrate or carry out illegal snooping of Internet and voice communications.
The lawsuit asks the court to order federal officials to account for and then destroy information illegally-obtained from AT&T databases and to pay unspecified cash damages.
Bankston said the EFF had ample evidence that the NSA "is vacuuming up millions upon millions of ordinary AT&T communications."
EFF attorneys expect federal officials to argue to the court that a "state secrets privilege" protects them from the litigation because information revealed while defending themselves could threaten national security.
Bankston dismissed such a defense, saying the EFF is not interested in exposing what US spies may have found but only whether they had proper legal authority to snoop on US citizens' telephone and Internet communications.
The US District Court judge presiding over the suits against the telecom firms earlier rejected the "states secret" argument by government lawyers who have appealed his decision.
Consideration of the appeal has been suspended pending resolution of whether the granting of immunity to telecoms companies forces the dismissal of the cases in the lower court.
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