A lawsuit over alleged illegal wiretapping should not proceed because it would force disclosure of state secrets in the U.S. anti-terrorism effort, an attorney for the U.S. Justice Department argued in court on Friday.
At a hearing in a San Francisco federal court, civil liberties advocates attempted to persuade U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White to allow a lawsuit against the government to proceed.
As the proceeding began, White said he was "completely open" about what he might do.
A group of AT&T Inc customers filed a proposed class action against the National Security Agency and Bush administration officials in 2008, accusing them of improperly operating a warrantless mass surveillance of U.S. citizens.
A separate lawsuit against AT&T failed after the U.S. Congress granted the company immunity from the suit.
The case against the government had previously been dismissed on the grounds that the plaintiffs did not have legal standing to sue. However, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the decision.
The plaintiffs cite evidence, including statements from an AT&T employee, about how the NSA set up a secret room in telecom facilities to siphon off communications without a warrant.
In court on Friday, plaintiff attorney Richard Wiebe said enough information about the wiretapping has been publicly disclosed so that litigation would not damage national security.
The NSA's program is "completely unprecedented in the history of the republic," Wiebe said.
However, Justice Department attorney Anthony Coppolino said there was no way plaintiff lawyers could embark on discovery without delving into specifics of what the NSA did or did not do.
"There's nothing non-privileged about any of this case," he said.
Coppolino declined to confirm what activities took place at AT&T facilities, but said that the employee did not know the "full range of facts."
The case in U.S. District Court, Northern District of California is Carolyn Jewel et al. vs. National Security Agency et al., 08-cv-4373.