WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court has ended a 6-year-old class-action lawsuit against the nation’s telecommunications carriers for secretly helping the National Security Agency monitor phone calls and emails coming into and out of the U.S.
The suit was dealt a death blow in 2008 when Congress granted retroactive immunity to people or companies aiding U.S. intelligence agents.
Without comment, the justices turned down appeals from civil liberties advocates who contended this mass surveillance was unconstitutional and illegal.
The suit against the telecom companies was triggered when Mark Klein, a retired AT&T engineer in San Francisco, revealed that the company had allowed NSA agents to tap into its switching devices. He testified this meant that the NSA may “conduct what amounts to vacuum-cleaner surveillance of all the data crossing the Internet.”
More than 30 lawsuits were filed against telecommunications companies, alleging they had violated their customers’ rights under federal laws that required them to maintain the privacy of electronic communications.
A few months before President George W. Bush left office, Congress passed a measure to shield the companies. It said a civil suit against “any person for providing assistance to an element of the intelligence community shall be promptly dismissed” if the U.S. attorney general invokes this provision in a court case.
Then-Attorney General Michael Mukasey invoked this provision in the San Francisco court where the 30 lawsuits had been consolidated. A judge then dismissed the suit, and the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed last December that the case could not go forward.
Lawyers for the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union appealed to the Supreme Court, but in a one-line order, the court said it would not hear the case of Hepting v. AT&T.