In a decision a plaintiffs' lawyer called an effort “to put lipstick on a pig,” a panel of the in San Francisco upheld Thursday a congressional grant of immunity from law suits to telecommunications companies that had surrendered records of their customers phone calls and electronic communications to warrantless government searches. The three-judge panel unanimously affirmed a lower court ruling holding the congressional action constitutional. The case consolidated 33 lawsuits filed against various telecom companies, including AT&T, Sprint Nextel, Verizon Communications Inc. and BellSouth Corp, on behalf of the companies' customers.
The legal battles grew out of presidential order signed by George W. Bush in 2002 authorizing the National Security Agency to conduct electronic surveillance on Americans and others inside the United States in search of evidence of terrorist activity. The presidential directive authorized searches without either the domestic court warrants required for criminal investigations or those issued by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court for investigation of activities of foreign persons or organizations, as required by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978. The controversies, both legal and political, arose after the New York Times published a page-one story on the secret program ("Bush Lets U.S. Spy on Callers Without Courts" in December 2005. The NSA, the Times reported, had been “monitoring the international telephone calls and international e-mail messages of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people inside the United States without warrants over the past three years in an effort to track possible 'dirty numbers'” linked to al Qaeda operatives.
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