Judge: Feds illegally wiretapped Islamic charity

SAN FRANCISCO — A federal judge ruled Wednesday that government investigators illegally wiretapped the phone conversations of an Islamic charity with a branch in Ashland and two American lawyers without a search warrant.

U.S. District Court Judge Vaughn Walker said the plaintiffs have provided enough evidence to show "they were subjected to warrantless electronic surveillance."

At issue was a 2006 lawsuit challenging the Bush administration's so-called Terrorist Surveillance Program. The lawsuit was filed by the Ashland, Ore. branch of the Saudi-based Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation and two American lawyers Wendell Belew and Asim Ghafoor.

Belew and Ghafoor claimed their 2004 phone conversation with a foundation official, Soliman al-Buthi, was wiretapped soon after the Treasury Department had declared the charity branch a supporter of terrorism.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has said the lawsuit threatens to expose ongoing intelligence work and must be thrown out.

In making the argument, the Obama administration agreed with the Bush administration's position on the case but insists it came to the decision differently.

Holder's effort to stop the lawsuit marks the first time the administration has tried to invoke the state secrets privilege.

Under the strategy, the government can have a lawsuit dismissed if hearing the case would jeopardize national security.

The Bush administration invoked the privilege numerous times in lawsuits over various post-9/11 programs.

Holder said Judge Walker was given a classified description of why the case must be dismissed so the court can "conduct its own independent assessment of our claim."

The attorney general has said the judge would decide whether the administration had made a valid claim and "we will respect the outcome of that process."

That is a departure from the Bush administration, which resisted providing specifics to judges handling such cases about what the national security concerns were.

— Wire reports

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