A federal panel of judges has consolidated 17 lawsuits throughout the United States filed against telephone companies accused of assisting the Bush administration monitor Americans' communications without warrants.

The Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation transferred the cases to U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker, who last month declined to dismiss one of the lawsuits brought against the federal government and AT&T Inc., according to an order released Thursday.

The consolidated lawsuits also target Verizon Communications Inc., Bellsouth Corp. and their affiliates. The panel ruled 26 other lawsuits with similar allegations also may be moved to Walker, who took the bench in 1990 after being nominated by the first President Bush.

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Last month, Walker rejected government assertions that the AT&T case had to be dropped because it could expose state secrets and jeopardize the war on terror.

Walker ruled July 20 the warrantless eavesdropping has been so widely reported there's no danger of exposing secrets. No hearing has been set, and the Justice Department has asked Walker to halt the case pending appeal.

The lawsuits challenge President Bush's assertion that he can use his wartime powers to eavesdrop on Americans without a warrant. The suits accuse the companies of illegally making communications on their networks available to the National Security Agency without warrants.

A five-judge panel of federal judges consolidated the cases because they dealt with similar allegations, choosing Walker because the AT&T case was the most advanced.

The case is In Re National Security Agency Telecommunications Records Litigation, 1791.

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