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Court OKs immunity for telecoms in US wiretap case
Court OKs immunity for telecoms in US government's surveillance program
By The Associated Press

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) ' A U.S. appeals court on Thursday said a 2008 law granting telecommunications companies legal immunity for helping the National Security Agency with an email and telephone eavesdropping program is constitutional.

The case had consolidated 33 lawsuits filed against various telecom companies on behalf of customers that accused the companies of violating the law and customers' privacy by collaborating with the NSA on intelligence gathering thorugh the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA.

The case is related to surveillance rules passed by Congress in 2009 that included protection from legal liability for telecommunications companies that allegedly helped the U.S. spy on Americans without warrants.

"I'm very disappointed," said Cindy Cohn, legal director of the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation, who argued the case before the three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. "I think what Congress did was an abdication of its duty to protect people from illegal surveillance."

In its unanimous ruling, the court noted comments made by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence regarding the legal immunity's role in helping the government gather intelligence.

"It emphasized that electronic intelligence gathering depends in great part on cooperation from private companies ... and that if litigation were allowed to proceed against persons allegedly assisting in such activities, 'the private sector might be unwilling to cooperate with lawful government requests in the future,'" Judge M. Margaret McKeown said.

In a separate opinion on Thursday, a three-judge panel of the court revived two other lawsuits that challenged the warrantless surveillance program.

Two groups of telecom customers had sued the NSA for violating their privacy by collecting Internet data from telecom companies in the surveillance program authorized by former President George W. Bush.

Government lawyers have moved to stop such cases, arguing that defending the program in court would jeopardize national security.

The suits will be sent back to U.S. District Court in San Francisco.

Emails seeking comment from the U.S. Department of Justice weren't immediately returned.

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