Sunday, March 19, 2006

Are warrantless searches putting terrorism cases in legal danger?

American citizens are the victims and targets of physical warrantless searches by their government.

Three months ago, U.S. Attorney Karin Immergut in Oregon received a note from Thomas Nelson. Nelson has apparently been the target of physical searches:

In an interview, Nelson said he believes that the searches resulted from the fact that FBI agents accidentally gave his client classified documents and were trying to retrieve them. Nelson's client is Soliman al-Buthe, codirector of a now defunct charity named al-Haramain, who was indicted in 2004 for illegally taking charitable donations out of the country. The feds also froze the charity's assets, alleging ties to Osama bin Laden. The documents that were given to him, Nelson says, may prove that al-Buthe was the target of the NSA surveillance program.

The searches, if they occurred, were anything but deft. Late at night on two occasions, Nelson's colleague Jonathan Norling noticed a heavyset, middle-aged, non-Hispanic white man claiming to be a member of an otherwise all-Hispanic cleaning crew, wearing an apron and a badge and toting a vacuum. But, says Norling, "it was clear the vacuum was not moving." Three months later, the same man, waving a brillo pad, spent some time trying to open Nelson's locked office door, Norling says. Nelson's wife and son, meanwhile, repeatedly called their home security company asking why their alarm system seemed to keep malfunctioning. The company could find no fault with the system.

Nelson, along with two other civil rights attornies from Portland have filed a lawsuit in District Court against the NSA of behalf of the charity.

Immergut has assured Nelson that the US Attorney's Office will not target terrorism suspect's lawyers without a warrant.

But will the District of Oregon US Attorney's Office use evidence against American citizens that has been retrieved without the benefit of a warrant? It certainly does put the Deparment of Justice in a tenuous legal position. How can such evidence stand up to Constitutional scrutiny? And does it put cases of real terrorism suspects in jeopardy?

Oregonians need to be asking themselves if they'll be allowing the federal government to use such evidence and if they'll allow the feds to continue operating in our jurisdiction. I'm no lawyer and certainly no Constitutional scholar. Do the citizens of Oregon have recourse against an entity of the federal government that's in an apparent violation of the Fourth Amendment?

(hat tip: Firedoglake)