March 31st, 2010
03:05 PM ET

Judge: Government liable for illegal wiretap of charity

A federal judge ruled Wednesday that the government is liable for illegally wiretapping an Islamic charity without a valid search warrant.

The ruling in Northern California District Court reaffirmed an earlier decision that the warrantless wiretaps conducted on an Oregon-based Islamic non-profit organization were illegal.

In Wednesday's ruling, District Judge Vaughn R. Walker said the government is liable for damages from the illegal wiretapping.

The United States has designated the Oregon-based al-Haramain Islamic Foundation as a terrorist organization. The group, which has sued the government over alleged warrantless wiretapping, is demanding classified information about the program launched by President George W. Bush's administration.

U.S. officials have refused to tell the charity's lawyers whether the group was subjected to presidentially authorized, warrantless, foreign intelligence surveillance in 2004 and, if so, what information was obtained.

The U.S. stance originated under the Bush administration in what is called the "state secrets" defense, which allows courts to block lawsuits against the government on grounds that the litigation could harm national security. Under Bush, the government refused to turn over any classified evidence.

Attorney General Eric Holder, appointed when President Barack Obama took office in January 2009, has so far maintained the state secrets defense in the al-Haramain case, but indicated a willingness to consider sharing information with judges in certain cases.

"An additional review was conducted at the highest levels of the Department of Justice to determine whether continued invocation of the privilege was warranted," the government told the court last May. "Based on that review, it is the government's position that disclosure of classified information ... would create intolerable risks to national security."

Walker's ruling Wednesday rejected that defense, saying that for the purposes of the case, the court decided there was no warrant for the wiretaps because the government refused to confirm one existed.

"Defendants have foregone multiple opportunities to show that a warrant existed, including specifically rejecting the method created by Congress for this very purpose," the ruling said.

In 2007 the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a ruling by Walker in the same case in which he had rejected the government's state secrets privilege. The ruling, however, left unanswered whether applicable laws could pre-empt the state secrets privilege, so al-Haramain went back to court to continue the fight on that issue.

- CNN's Bill Mears contributed to this story

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Filed under: Justice • Supreme Court
soundoff (One Response)
  1. Jason

    Now let's see the Jusuce Department do what Obama promised. Hold accountable the traitors that listened to Americans phones and emails... And prosecut those who approved torture... Or will you continue to "look forward" liar Obama... We have a criminal government that rape steal and pillage literally!

    March 31, 2010 at 4:05 pm | Report abuse |