Celebrated Chicago author Studs Terkel and prominent leaders in the medical, legal, political and faith communities today filed a federal lawsuit charging that telephone giant AT&T violated their privacy by secretly sharing the telephone records of millions of Americans with the National Security Agency. The secret program was revealed in a May 11, 2006 article in USA Today.
The prominent Chicago area professionals who filed the lawsuit today note their special concerns with the government's gathering of the phone records of innocent Americans. As a journalist, for example, Mr. Terkel wants the capacity to keep sources secret from government scrutiny. Lawyers, doctors and clergy members rely upon confidentiality in order to best serve their clients, patients and congregants. Elected officials rely on the ability to strategize and communicate with allies and others without the federal executive branch monitoring their activities.
In addition to Mr. Terkel, the other plaintiffs in the case filed in federal district court in Chicago today include: Barbara Flynn Currie, Majority Leader of the Illinois House of Representatives; Rabbi Gary Gerson of Oak Park Temple; Professor Diane Geraghty, Director of the Civitas ChildLaw Center at Loyola University School of Law, Chicago; James Montgomery, former Corporation Counsel for the City of Chicago; and, Dr. Quinten Young, a physician and advocate for health care reform.
"Having been blacklisted from working in television during the McCarthy era, I know the harm of government using private corporations to intrude into the lives of innocent Americans," said Terkel. "When government uses the telephone companies to create massive databases of all our phone calls it has gone too far. "
The group of renowned plaintiffs contends that AT&T violated their individual right to engage in telephone conversations without government monitoring under the Electronic Communications Privacy Act. That law, according to the complaint, prohibits any entity providing "an electronic communication service" from divulging the records of customers to governmental agencies.
Without consent of customers or other lawful certification authorized by a court order, according to published reports, the National Security Agency sought the records of tens of millions of telephone customers in the United States. Indeed, when Denver-based Qwest Communications asked the NSA for the legal authority behind their request to that company for telephone records, the NSA discontinued the request.
"For the individuals we represent today, the ability to act without government oversight and intrusion is critical to the function of their profession," said Harvey Grossman, Legal Director for the ACLU of Illinois representing the five plaintiffs. "The NSA program, if unchecked, interferes with the ability of lawyers to deal with clients, doctors to treat their patients and clergy to counsel members of their congregation."
The plaintiffs have asked the federal court to certify a class of Illinois residents who use AT&T for telephone service and to enjoin AT&T from divulging any further information to the NSA. The plaintiffs will seek a prompt hearing on their request for a preliminary injunction.
Plaintiff Montgomery"The disclosure of the NSA program was of grave concern to me," added James Montgomery. "If people seeking legal advice or representation know the government is monitoring who I am calling or who is calling me, they may be less inclined to seek that advice." The NSA program, then, limits a lawyer's ability to help those in need."
The national ACLU, which filed a legal challenge in January to the NSA's warrantless wiretapping, also is of counsel in today's lawsuit.
"Our corporate and political leaders should talk straight with the American people about these secret demands for customer phone records," said ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero. "Whether the government is monitoring or intercepting the domestic and international calls of millions of Americans without warrants goes to the heart of our system of checks and balances."
Chicago attorneys William Hooks of the Hooks Law Offices and Marc Beem and Zachary Freeman of the law firm Miller, Shakman & Beem, are assisting the ACLU of Illinois in the case.