Saturday, November 17, 2007

Court Rejects Challenge To Wiretap Program

The Bush administration's warrantless spy effort is protected by the 'state secrets' privilege, federal judges rule.

The LA Times reports:

In rejecting a key element of a legal challenge to the government's warrantless wiretapping program, federal appellate judges on Friday demonstrated once again the willingness of U.S. courts to give the Bush administration considerable latitude in handling the war on terror.

The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, by a 3-0 vote, barred an Islamic charity from using a confidential government document to prove that it had been illegally spied upon, agreeing with the administration that disclosure would reveal "state secrets."

The lawsuit, filed by Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation and two of its attorneys, challenged the National Security Agency's spying endeavor, the Terrorist Surveillance Program, launched after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The U.N. Security Council has declared that Al-Haramain, which operates in more than 50 countries, belongs to or is associated with Al Qaeda.

The suit was one of 50 legal challenges brought across the country after the program's existence was revealed in the New York Times.

Other courts have shown similar deference to the Bush administration on the state secrets privilege, which permits the government to bar disclosure in court of information if "there is a reasonable danger" it would affect national security.

But the ruling in this case was particularly striking because it came from a panel of three liberal jurists, all appointed by Democratic presidents.

Moreover, the charity, unlike other plaintiffs, says it has evidence of surveillance -- a call log from the National Security Agency that the government inadvertently turned over in another proceeding.

In the ruling, Judge M. Margaret McKeown wrote that the judges accepted "the need to defer to the executive on matters of foreign and national security and surely cannot legitimately find ourselves second-guessing the executive in this arena."

Erwin Chemerinsky, a liberal constitutional law professor at Duke University law school, said the court showed "how much deference even a liberal panel of judges is willing to give the executive branch in situations like this, and I find that very troubling."

Doug Kmiec, a conservative constitutional law professor at Pepperdine law school, said "the opinion is consistent with" a ruling by the federal appeals court in Cincinnati earlier this year striking down a challenge to the surveillance filed by the American Civil Liberties Union.

He said the dual rulings indicated that "federal courts recognize that the essential aspects of the Terrorist Surveillance Program both remain secret and are important to preserve as such."

The court's ruling was not an absolute victory for the government. McKeown rejected the Justice Department's argument that "the very subject matter of the litigation is a state secret."

That finding could prove important in numerous other cases in which the government contends that even considering legal challenges to warrantless wiretapping would endanger national security.

In addition, the 9th Circuit panel sent the case back to a lower court to consider another issue: whether the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which requires approval by a special court for domestic surveillance, preempts the state secrets privilege. McKeown said that issue "remains central to Al-Haramain's ability to proceed with this lawsuit."

Georgetown University constitutional law professor David Cole said he thought Friday's ruling showed partial victories for both sides.

Indeed, lawyers for the government and for the charity said they were happy with the outcome.

"The 9th Circuit upheld the government's position that release of this information would undermine the government's intelligence capabilities and compromise national security," the Justice Department said.

Oakland attorney Jon Eisenberg, who argued for Al-Haramain before the 9th Circuit, said: "The government wants this case dead and gone. It is not. We are alive and kicking."

Eisenberg expressed optimism that his client would prevail under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, a statute enacted in the aftermath of revelations of illegal spying on civil rights and antiwar activists in the 1960s and '70s.

"That provision would be meaningless if the government could evade any such lawsuit merely by evoking the state secrets privilege," Eisenberg said.