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Appeals court overturns ruling, says government wiretapping was OK

August 7, 2012 | 12:46 pm

A federal appeals court Tuesday threw out a lawsuit by lawyers for an Islamic group that charged the federal government had illegally wiretapped them.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said the government had legal immunity from the lawsuit filed by lawyers for  Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation, a now-defunct charity that federal agents said was a terrorist group.

The ruling overturns a 2010 decision by a San Francisco federal judge against the wiretapping program. That ruling awarded the group’s lawyers who had been wiretapped a total of $40,800 and required the government to pay Al-Haramain’s $2.5 million legal fees.

“This case effectively brings to an end the plaintiffs’ ongoing attempts to hold the executive branch responsible for intercepting telephone conversations without judicial authorization,” the 9th Circuit said.

The panel also affirmed a lower-court decision that FBI Director Robert Mueller could not be personally sued as a result of the surveillance.

In 2001, President George W. Bush authorized the government to monitor, without warrants, telephone calls and e-mails between Americans and possible foreign terrorists. Al-Haramain and its two lawyers sued, arguing that they had been wiretapped illegally.

Jon Eisenberg, who represented Al-Haramain’s lawyers, said the decision prevents citizens who have been wiretapped without a warrant from suing the government.

“There is no accountability,” Eisenberg said. “That is what is so distressful about this decision. It means that President Bush got away with it, and it means that President Obama will be able to get away with it and every president after him.”

The extent of government wiretapping “is a government secret, and the courts aren’t going to have anything to do with revealing those secrets,” Eisenberg said.

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