ACLU Throws Support Behind Shareholder Challenge to AT&T on Illegal NSA Spying

January 17, 2007 12:00 am

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> NEWS: ACLU Backs Shareholder Challenge to AT&T on Illegal NSA Spying (1/17/2007)
> NEWS: Campaign Continues to End Unlawful Government Spying on Americans (1/9/2007)
> NEWS: ACLU Calls for Answers and Oversight on President’s Snooping Authority (1/4/2007)
> BLOG: Looking to Congress for Real Leadership (1/3/2007)
> NEWS: Scholar, Civil Rights, Law and Reporters’ Groups Support Challenge to Illegal Spying (11/21/2006)

> The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act
> Faces of Surveillance – Targets of Illegal Spying
> ACLU v. NSA Lawsuit

NEW YORK – The American Civil Liberties Union today announced its support for an effort by AT&T shareholders to force the company to disclose more about its role in the recent National Security Agency (NSA) illegal spying scandal and to tighten its policies to better protect customer privacy.

“In an era when one of the nation’s oldest corporate names has begun to collude with the government in an illegal domestic spying program, patriots must seek out every possible avenue for defending the Constitution and our privacy,” said Barry Steinhardt, Director of the ACLU’s Technology and Liberty Project. “We are backing this campaign because it promises to increase AT&T’s accountability and shed light on just what kind of spying has been taking place.”

The shareholder effort consists of a proposed resolution to be considered at AT&T’s April stockholder meeting, which would require management to take the relatively modest step of issuing a report on the issues surrounding cooperation with the NSA, what steps the company could take to “further ensure” customer privacy, and the company’s expenditures related to the program. It is being spearheaded by the As You Sow Foundation, an investor activist group.

AT&T has appealed to the Securities and Exchange Commission for permission to exclude the resolution from its proxy statement. The company claimed that the resolution would interfere with “ordinary business matters,” and also relied upon a declaration from National Intelligence Director John Negroponte citing the so-called “state secrets privilege.”

The state secrets privilege, when properly invoked, permits the government to block the release of any information in a lawsuit that, if disclosed, would cause harm to national security. However, the Bush administration is increasingly using the privilege to dismiss entire lawsuits at the onset. The government has invoked the privilege to evade accountability for torture, to silence national security whistleblowers, and even to dismiss a lawsuit alleging racial discrimination. This once-rare tool is being used not to protect the nation from harm, but to cover up the government’s illegal actions and prevent further embarrassment.

“Once again the intelligence agencies, working through their proxies in the telecom industry, are abusing the state secrets privilege,” said Steinhardt. “We at the ACLU are all too familiar with this tactic, which is more about trying to shield the government from embarrassment than actually protecting national security.”

In support of the As You Sow resolution, Steinhardt said the ACLU plans to lend its legal expertise, mobilize members, activists and allies and also our many affiliates that are AT&T shareholders.

The ACLU’s support for the shareholder campaign fits in with the group’s other efforts to stop the NSA’s illegal spying program. In July, ACLU staff attended a BellSouth shareholders meeting to raise questions about the implications for the merger of AT&T’s apparent cooperation with illegal spying. The ACLU also asked the Federal Communications Commission to review AT&T’s merger with BellSouth because of the spying issue, and has filed requests with state utility commissions in 23 states seeking investigations of violations of state laws. It has also sued the government directly over the program.

“This is really an issue for anyone who uses a telephone and values privacy and the rule of law,” Steinhardt said. “But it is of particular concern for AT&T shareholders because of the enormous multi-billion-dollar financial liability that AT&T may have engendered, and because of the damage to the company’s reputation and the trust of its current and potential customers. AT&T management should not be trying to duck accountability on this matter.”

The proposed shareholder resolution is online at:

AT&T’s petition to omit is online at:

As You Sow’s response to AT&T petition is available at:

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