U.S. judge revives suit over use of wiretaps

Jan. 7, 2009
Islamic charity claims it was illegally wiretapped by federal authorities

A defunct Islamic charity in Oregon that says it was illegally wiretapped by federal authorities can pursue its lawsuit challenging President Bush's clandestine eavesdropping program, a federal judge in San Francisco ruled Monday.

In reviving a suit filed by Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation, Chief U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker said the group had enough publicly available evidence to show that it could reasonably believe it had been wiretapped.

The ruling is "a big win for us," said Jon Eisenberg, an Oakland attorney for the plaintiffs.

Walker had dismissed the suit in July, saying the group could not use a classified document that the government had accidentally turned over to the foundation.

But later that month, the group produced nonsecret information - an October 2007 speech in which a deputy FBI director said that the agency "used ... surveillance" in an investigation into whether the organization was linked to terrorism. The speech was given at a conference of the American Bankers Association and American Bar Association on money laundering.

Now that the group has found that nonclassified evidence, Walker said he will examine the classified evidence and decide whether the group could proceed with its claims that Bush's program of conducting surveillance without a court warrant violated federal law or the U.S. Constitution.

Walker ordered the government to give top-secret security clearances to Eisenberg and one or two colleagues. In addition, the judge asked the government to consider declassifying the secret evidence.

"The court's next steps will prioritize two interests: protecting classified evidence from disclosure and enabling plaintiffs to prosecute their action," Walker wrote.

Al-Haramain, classified by the government as a terrorist organization in September 2004, and two of its attorneys said the records they were inadvertently given by the government that year showed that the group's phones had been tapped.

The organization, which has denied any connection to terrorism, returned the documents when federal officials learned of the error. The group claimed that the wiretapping violated the 1978 U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.