Friday, June 16, 2006

New Jersey Issues Subpoenas Over NSA Program

The telephone companies who may have participated in the NSA warrantless surveillance programs are receiving unwanted attention from the state of New Jersey.

The New Jersey attorney general has issued subpoenas to five telephone companies to determine whether any of them violated the state's consumer protection laws by providing records to the National Security Agency. Experts say it is the first legal move by a state to question the agency's program to compile calling records to track terrorist activities.

On Wednesday, the United States filed a lawsuit to block the subpoenas, setting up a legal showdown pitting the state's authority to protect consumers' rights against the federal government's national security powers.

"People in New Jersey and people everywhere have privacy rights," the state's attorney general, Zulima V. Farber, said on Thursday. "What we were trying to determine was whether the phone companies in New Jersey had violated any law or any contractual obligations with their consumers by supplying information to some government entity, simply by request, and not by any court order or search warrant."

This latest confrontation over the invocation of national security began last month, when Ms. Farber issued the subpoenas to the companies -- AT&T, Verizon, Qwest, Sprint Nextel and Cingular Wireless -- to determine whether they had turned over the phone records to the federal government without a court order, in possible violation of state laws.

But when the Justice Department filed suit in United States District Court here to block those subpoenas -- a suit that Ms. Farber received on Thursday -- it asserted that the state was straying into a federal matter, and that compliance with the subpoenas would imperil national security.

As a matter of national security policy, the dispute represents the latest twist in the controversy over the boundaries of domestic spying and personal privacy. But as a matter of government practice and legal precedent, the dispute is significant because it transforms what had primarily been a fight between the federal government and civil liberties groups into a far knottier one pitting federal authorities against state ones.

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