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Feds, N.J. battling over NSA phone records search

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KAI RYSSDAL: The White House is telling New Jersey to mind its own darn business. State officials are curious about the administration’s domestic spying program. So far, the legal battle against federal phone snooping has been waged by consumer advocates and civil liberties groups. Now, though, it’s states against the feds. Here’s our New York bureau chief Bob Moon:

BOB MOON: Private attorneys challenging the government surveillance program say this can only help their cause. Attorney Carl Mayer points out New Jersey Attorney General Zulima Farber has top federal security clearance.

CARL MAYER:“It shows that the administration’s national security arguments are bankrupt, because the attorney general and other state officials in New Jersey have the clearance.”

Beyond that, Mayer says, the involvement of a state official gives the challenge new credibility:

MAYER:“If the attorney general of the state of New Jersey’s convinced that consumer protection laws are being broken, that should carry weight with judges, and bolster our argument that consumer protection laws have been broken here.”

An AT&T spokesman suggested to the New York Times that the phone companies shouldn’t be forced into court to address government policy issues. But the Electronic Privacy Information Center’s Mark Rotenberg says the courts will eventually need to decide.

MARK ROTENBERG:“State secrets is now being used as a way to effectively keep these cases away from the courts. And at a certain point, I think it essentially takes apart the system of checks and balances that’s so important to safeguard privacy.”

In the meantime, Ohio State University professor Peter Swire says the moves by New Jersey’s attorney general could have a more immediate effect:

PETER SWIRE:“The attorney general might be able to get an injunction, to get a court that says they have to stop the program going forward. So if you have a state official saying stop violating the law with respect to our state’s citizens, there’s a moral weight behind that position.”

Privacy advocates today were challenging the other 49 state attorneys general to weigh in, as well.

In New York, I’m Bob Moon for Marketplace.

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