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U.S. illegally wiretapped Islamic charity group, judge rules

March 31, 2010 |  2:17 pm

http://www.interet-general.info/IMG/George-Bush-1.jpgA federal judge ruled Wednesday that two lawyers' constitutional rights were violated when the Bush administration subjected them to illegal surveillance while they worked for an Islamic charity in Oregon.

U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker in San Francisco issued a summary judgment in the case brought by the Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation four years ago, ruling that the now-defunct charity and its lawyers' rights to be free from warrantless surveillance trumped presidential assertions of special wartime powers.

All that is left to be decided by the court, said the foundation's attorney, Jon Eisenberg, is the amount of damages to be paid to the two lawyers and the foundation estate. Eisenberg said his clients were "making it easy" for the government to settle the matter, asking only for the $100 per day authorized by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act for 202 days for which there is "indisputable" evidence that the two lawyers were subject to illegal surveillance.

That amounts to $20,200 per plaintiff, plus whatever punitive damages Walker may award, said Eisenberg, with the maximum cost unlikely to exceed $600,000.

"This case is not about money. It's about putting the brakes on the abuse of presidential power," said the Oakland lawyer. He has represented U.S.-citizen lawyers Wendell Belew and Asi Ghafoor without charge throughout the four-year legal action, but could be compensated if Walker chooses to award attorney fees as part of the settlement.

A Justice Department spokeswoman did not immediately return a call for comment on whether the government would accept the judge's ruling or appeal.

President Obama criticized his predecessor's use of the state secrets privilege to shield the government from liability for domestic surveillance without first getting a warrant by showing a judge there is probable cause to suspect wrongdoing.

-- Carol J. Williams

Photo: AP