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Judge rejects state secrets defense in wiretapping lawsuit

By Dan Levine

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - The U.S. government cannot quickly terminate a civil privacy lawsuit over warrantless wiretapping by arguing that such litigation would expose state secrets and harm national security, a U.S. judge has ruled.

A group of AT&T Inc customers filed the 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.

The government's monitoring of email traffic has received renewed scrutiny in recent weeks, following disclosures by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden of widespread U.S. data collection efforts.

While U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White in San Francisco did not end the lawsuit on Monday on state secrets grounds, he did narrow the plaintiffs' claims and raised several issues that may ultimately prevent the case from reaching trial following several years of litigation.

Cindy Cohn, legal director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation which represents the plaintiffs, said she hopes the continuing public court proceedings will prompt Obama administration officials to reconsider the use of such data collection methods.

"This is a huge victory and a very courageous decision," Cohn said. A U.S. Department of Justice spokesman said they are reviewing the decision and declined further comment.

In his ruling on Monday, White ordered further briefing on the impact of "recent disclosure of the government's continuing surveillance activities," along with the statement by the Director of National Intelligence that certain information from secret national security courts "should be declassified and immediately released to the public."

The case in U.S. District Court, Northern District of California is Jewel et al. vs. National Security Agency et al., 08-4373.

(Reporting By Dan Levine; editing by Andrew Hay)

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