CHICAGO – Justice Department lawyers asserted a rarely used “state secrets” privilege in federal court Thursday morning in arguing for the dismissal of a lawsuit that alleges AT&T improperly handed over massive amounts of phone records to the government.

Deputy Assistant Attorney General Carl Nichols said that AT&T won’t be able to defend itself against the allegations because the government is invoking the secrets privilege, which effectively shuts down any confirmation or denial of allegations in the suit.

Nichols said such information would empower terrorists and endanger national security.

Because AT&T can’t present a defense, the suit, filed by Chicago author Studs Terkel among others, must be dismissed, Nichols argued.

“We are facing a threat right now from al-Qaida,” Nichols said. “Even the smallest risk is not a risk we should tolerate.”

Harvey Grossman, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Illinois, answered that his clients simply want to know that AT&T is acting lawfully.

“If it’s done lawfully, we’ll walk out the door,” Grossman said.

AT&T has not confirmed or denied handing over records without a court order.

Questions about the Bush administration’s domestic intelligence activities have come to the fore after a series of published reports revealed the government has gathered telephone records without obtaining court approval.

Terkel’s suit charges AT&T gave the National Security Agency access to those records improperly.

U.S. District Judge Martin Kennelly said today that he will take the parties’ arguments under advisement and rule at a later date on whether the suit can go forward.

(c) 2006, Chicago Tribune.

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Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-07-13-06 1547EDT

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