Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Ashland Islamic Charity Sues over NSA Wiretaps

It's certainly possible that I've missed other reports*, but this is the first instance I'm aware of where a group has sued the US government over its program of NSA wiretaps, related to procedures set out in the FISA statutes. Perhaps more ominously, from the details it appears that not just one, but BOTH ends of the conversation took place in the United States.

According to the Jackson Mail Tribune:
A chapter of the Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation, a defunct Saudi Arabian charity, was established in Ashland in 1997 as a prayer house that also distributed Islamic literature. The chapter was indicted in February 2004 on tax charges alleging it helped launder $150,000 in donations to help al-Qaida fighters in Chechnya in 2000.

The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Portland alleges the NSA illegally wiretapped electronic communications between the chapter and Wendell Belew and Asim Ghafoor, both attorneys in Washington, D.C.

The complaint, which also names President Bush as a defendant, seeks “an order that would require defendants and their agents to halt an illegal and unconstitutional program of electronic surveillance of United States citizens and entities.”

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the two Washington attorneys and the Al-Haramain chapter by three Portland civil rights lawyers: Steven Goldberg, Zaha Hassan and Thomas Nelson.

“This case will show how the illegal program was implemented and used to the injury of United States citizens and charities,” Nelson said.

Last time I checked, both Ashland--the town in southern Oregon most noted for its annual Shakespeare Festival and 80% Kerry vote in 2004--and Washington DC were within the US. And if as the complaint notes, the NSA failed to secure a court order for the surveillance that ultimately led to a 2004 indictment on money-laundering to al-Qaeda sympathizers in Chechnya, it would establish that the parameters of the NSA's spying go beyond what the Bush administration alleges.

Owing to the sensitivity of the information involved, don't expect to see many details of the trial made public, and of course this is just the very first step in what stands to be a long and drawn-out process of ajudication. But we now appear to have an important threshhold met: a party who claims actual harm from the surveillance procedures set in place by the Bush administration. Without that necessary standing, legal motions to declare NSA actions as improper would have a much more difficult time gaining a hearing.

Stay tuned, obviously...depending upon the uniqueness of this filing, it could quickly become a national story.

Update, 230pm--
Based on this rundown from Wikipedia, while there are challenges currently under suit, it does appear that this is the first party that alleges actual harm from wiretapping. The al-Timimi case may turn out that way, but apparently the question of whether he was surveilled outside of FISA law is yet to be discovered.