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Context of 'February 28, 2006: Saudi Charitable Organization Sues Bush Administration Over Alleged Illegal Wiretapping'

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Following the revelations of the Church Committee’s investigation into the excesses of the CIA (see April, 1976), and the equally revealing New York Times article documenting the CIA’s history of domestic surveillance against US citizens for political purposes (see December 21, 1974), Congress passes the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA). In essence, FISA prohibits physical and electronic surveillance against US citizens except in certain circumstances affecting national security, under certain guidelines and restrictions, with court warrants issued by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC), operating within the Department of Justice as well as with criminal warrants. FISA restricts any surveillance of US citizens (including US corporations and permanent foreign residents) to those suspected of having contact with “foreign powers” and terrorist organizations. FISA gives a certain amount of leeway for such surveillance operations, requiring that the administration submit its evidence for warrantless surveillance to FISC within 24 hours of its onset and keeping the procedures and decisions of FISC secret from the public. [Electronic Frontier Foundation, 9/27/2001; Legal Information Institute, 11/30/2004] On September 14, 2001, Congress will pass a revision of FISA that extends the time period for warrantless surveillance to 72 hours. The revision, part of the Intelligence Authorization Act of 2002, will also lower the standard for the issuance of wiretap warrants and make legal “John Doe,” or generic, warrants that can be used without naming a particular target. FISA revisions will also expand the bounds of the technologies available to the government for electronic and physical surveillance, and broaden the definitions of who can legally be monitored. [US Senate, 9/14/2001; Senator Jane Harman, 2/1/2006]

Entity Tags: Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, New York Times, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, US Department of Justice, Church Committee

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Bombings of the Nairobi, Kenya, US embassy (left), and the Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, US embassy (right).Bombings of the Nairobi, Kenya, US embassy (left), and the Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, US embassy (right). [Source: Associated Press] (click image to enlarge)Two US embassies in Africa are bombed within minutes of each other. At 10:35, local time, a suicide car bomb attack in Nairobi, Kenya, kills 213 people, including 12 US nationals, and injures more than 4,500. Mohamed al-Owhali and someone known only as Azzam are the suicide bombers, but al-Owhali runs away at the last minute and survives. Four minutes later, a suicide car bomb attack in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, kills 11 and injures 85. The attacks are blamed on al-Qaeda. Hamden Khalif Allah Awad is the suicide bomber there. [PBS Frontline, 2001; United States of America v. Usama Bin Laden, et al., Day 38, 5/2/2001] The Tanzania death toll is low because, remarkably, the attack takes place on a national holiday so the US embassy there is closed. [Miller, Stone, and Mitchell, 2002, pp. 195] The attack shows al-Qaeda has a capability for simultaneous attacks. The Tanzania bombing appears to have been a late addition, as one of the arrested bombers allegedly told US agents that it was added to the plot only about 10 days in advance. [United State of America v. Usama bin Laden, et al., Day 14, 3/7/2001] A third attack against the US embassy in Uganda does not take place due to a last minute delay (see August 7, 1998). [Associated Press, 9/25/1998] August 7, 1998, is the eighth anniversary of the arrival of US troops in Saudi Arabia, and some speculate that is the reason for the date of the bombings. [Gunaratna, 2003, pp. 46] In the 2002 book The Cell, reporters John Miller, Michael Stone, and Chris Miller will write, “What has become clear with time is that facets of the East Africa plot had been known beforehand to the FBI, the CIA, the State Department, and to Israeli and Kenyan intelligence services.… [N]o one can seriously argue that the horrors of August 7, 1998, couldn’t have been prevented.” They will also comment, “Inexplicable as the intelligence failure was, more baffling still was that al-Qaeda correctly presumed that a major attack could be carried out by a cell that US agents had already uncovered.” [Miller, Stone, and Mitchell, 2002, pp. 195, 206] After 9/11, it will come to light that three of the alleged hijackers, Khalid Almihdhar, Nawaf Alhazmi, and Salem Alhazmi, had some involvement in the bombings (see October 4, 2001, Late 1999, and 1993-1999) and that the US intelligence community was aware of this involvement by late 1999 (see December 15-31, 1999), if not before.

Entity Tags: Hamden Khalif Allah Awad, Mohamed al-Owhali, Salem Alhazmi, Khalid Almihdhar, Azzam, Al-Qaeda, Nawaf Alhazmi

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

A sign on top of the Al Haramains Islamic Foundation’s four-story office building in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in June 2004.A sign on top of the Al Haramains Islamic Foundation’s four-story office building in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in June 2004. [Source: Rafiqur Rahman / Reuters / Corbis]The Al Haramain Islamic Foundation was founded in 1988 as a branch of the Muslim World League charity, and just like the Muslim World League it is closely linked to the Saudi government. It develops branches in about 50 countries, including a US branch based in Oregon. It has an annual budget of $40 million to $60 million, paid by the Saudi government, and about 3,000 employees. It gives considerable aid to religious causes such as building mosques. But by the early 1990s evidence began to grow that it was funding Islamist militants in Somalia and Bosnia, and a 1996 CIA report detailed its Bosnian militant ties (see January 1996). In 1998, several links were discovered between the charity and the African embassy bombings that year (see Autumn 1997 and 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998).
bullet In March 2002, the US and Saudi governments jointly announce the closing of Al Haramain’s branches in Somalia and Bosnia, but Al Haramain defiantly keeps its Bosnian branch open and it is shut down again after police raids in December 2003. [Washington Post, 8/19/2004; Burr and Collins, 2006, pp. 38-41] In December 2002, it is reported that the Somali branch is still open as well. [Christian Science Monitor, 12/18/2002]
bullet In late 2002, Al Haramain is linked to the October 2002 Bali bombing and al-Qaeda operations in Southeast Asia in general (see September-October 2002).
bullet In May 2003, Al Haramain announces the closing of its branches in Albania, Croatia, and Ethiopia, soon followed by branches in Kenya, Tanzania, Pakistan, and Indonesia. But this is because of pressure due to suspected militant links, and at least the Indonesian branch secretly changes locations and stays open. [Burr and Collins, 2006, pp. 38-41]
bullet In late 2003, Al Haramain Director-General Aqeel al-Aqeel indiscreetly mentions that Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah recently donated money to his charity. Al-Aqeel, Deputy General Mansour al-Kadi, and two other senior officials are fired from the charity by the Saudi minister of religious affairs in January 2004. Interestingly, the Saudi minister is also the chairman of Al-Haramain’s board. In 1997, US intelligence found al-Kadi’s business card in the possession of Wadih el-Hage, Osama bin Laden’s former personal secretary (see Shortly After August 21, 1997). [Netherlands Interior Ministry, 1/6/2005 pdf file; Burr and Collins, 2006, pp. 38-41]
bullet In February 2004, the US Treasury Department freezes the organization’s US financial assets pending an investigation.
bullet In June 2004, The charity is disbanded by the Saudi Arabian government and folded into an “umbrella” private Saudi charitable organization, the Saudi National Commission for Relief and Charity Work Abroad.
bullet In September 2004, the US designates Al-Haramain a terrorist organization, citing ties to al-Qaeda. [US Treasury Department, 9/9/2004; Washington Post, 3/2/2006] The United Nations also bans the organization, saying it has ties to the Taliban. [United Nations, 7/27/2007]

Entity Tags: United Nations, US Department of the Treasury, Saudi National Commission for Relief and Charity Work Abroad, Muslim World League, Al-Qaeda, Aqeel al-Aqeel, Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, Al Haramain Islamic Foundation, Al Haramain Islamic Foundation (Oregon branch), Taliban, Mansour al-Kadi

Timeline Tags: Complete 911 Timeline

Thomas Tamm.Thomas Tamm. [Source: Newsweek]Thomas Tamm, a veteran Justice Department prosecutor with a high-level security clearance, is finishing up a yearlong post with the Office of Intelligence Policy and Review (OIPR), a Justice Department unit handling wiretaps of suspected terrorists and spies. As his stint is coming to a close, Tamm learns of the existence of a highly classified National Security Agency (NSA) program that is electronically eavesdropping on American citizens—domestic wiretapping. He later learns that “the program,” as it is referred to by those few who know of it at all, is called “Stellar Wind.”
Concealment from FISA Judges - Tamm learns that the NSA program is being hidden from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) Court, a panel of federal judges who by law must approve and supervise such surveillance for intelligence purposes. OIPR lawyers ask the FISA Court for permission to implement national-security wiretaps. But, Tamm learns, some wiretaps—signed only by Attorney General John Ashcroft—are going to the chief FISA Court judge and not the other ten judges on the FISA panel. The “AG-only” requests are extraordinarily secretive, and involve information gleaned from what is only referred to as “the program”—Stellar Wind. Only a very few White House and US intelligence officials know the name and the nature of “the program.” Stellar Wind involves domestic wiretaps on telephones and computer e-mail accounts derived from, but not necessarily linked to, information secured from captured al-Qaeda computers and cell phones overseas. With the voluntary cooperation of American telecommunications companies (see 1997-August 2007 and After, February 2001, February 2001, and February 2001 and Beyond), the NSA program also collects vast amounts of personal data about US citizens’ phone and e-mail communications. The program also collects an enormous amount of financial information from the Treasury Department (see February 28, 2006), all collected as part of the NSA’s “data mining” efforts (see Late 1999 and After September 11, 2001).
Program Is 'Probably Illegal,' Says DOJ Official - Tamm, suspicious about the unusual requests, asks his supervisors about the program, and is told to drop the subject. “[N]o one wanted to talk about it,” he will recall. Tamm asks one of his supervisors, Lisa Farabee, “Do you know what the program is?” Farabee replies: “Don’t even go there.… I assume what they are doing is illegal.” Tamm is horrified. His first thought, he will later recall, is, “I’m a law enforcement officer and I’m participating in something that is illegal?” Tamm soon finds out from deputy OIPR counsel Mark Bradley that the chief FISA judge, Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, is raising unwanted questions about the warrant requests (see 2004 and 2005), and “the AG-only cases are being shut down.” Bradley adds, “This may be [a time] the attorney general gets indicted.”
Request for Guidance Turned Down - For weeks, Tamm agonizes over what to do. He seeks guidance from a former colleague, Sandra Wilkinson, who now works on the Senate Judiciary Committee. The two have coffee in the Senate cafeteria, and Tamm asks Wilkinson to ask if anyone on the committee knows anything about “the program.” Weeks go by without a response, and Tamm sends Wilkinson an e-mail from his OIPR computer—an e-mail that will later alert the FBI to Tamm’s interest in Stellar Wind. During a second conversation, Wilkinson refuses to give Tamm any information. “Well, you know, then,” he replies, “I think my only option is to go to the press.”
Contacting the New York Times - Tamm finally decides to contact the New York Times’s Eric Lichtblau, who has written several stories on the Justice Department that impressed Tamm. By this point he has transferred out of OIPR and back into a Justice Department office that would allow him to return to the courtroom. Tamm calls Lichtblau from a pay phone near the US District Courthouse in Washington. “My whole body was shaking,” he will recall. He identifies himself only as “Mark” (his middle name), and arranges to meet Lichtblau at a bookstore near the Justice Department. (In his 2008 book Bush’s Law: The Remaking of American Justice, Lichtblau describes Tamm as “a walk-in” source who was “agitated about something going on in the intelligence community.” Lichtblau will describe Tamm as wary and “maddeningly vague,” but as they continue to meet—usually in bookstores and coffee shops in the Capitol District—Tamm’s “credibility and his bona fides became clear and his angst appears sincere. Eighteen months later, after finally overriding a request and warning from President Bush not to print the story (see December 6, 2005), the Times reports on the existence of the NSA program (see December 15, 2005). [Ars Technica, 12/16/2008; Newsweek, 12/22/2008]

Entity Tags: Mark Bradley, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Eric Lichtblau, Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, Bush administration (43), ’Stellar Wind’, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, Lisa Farabee, Senate Judiciary Committee, Thomas Tamm, Sandra Wilkinson, Office of Intelligence Policy and Review, New York Times, US Department of the Treasury, National Security Agency, US Department of Justice, John Ashcroft

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

David Ottaway.David Ottaway. [Source: AAAS.org]According to the Oregon branch of the Islamic charitable organization the Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation, Washington Post reporter David Ottaway receives a classified document that is evidence of illegal surveillance by the National Security Agency. The document shows that the NSA illegally intercepted telephone conversations and e-mails between Al Haramain officials in Oregon and Washington, DC. The document, dated May 24, 2004 and marked “Top Secret,” is accidentally provided to Al Haramain by Treasury Department officials that same month; Al Haramain quickly turns the document over to Ottoway, who is researching Islamic groups and individuals labeled as terrorists by the US government and are attempting to prove their innocence. Instead of reporting on the document, Ottaway will return it to the FBI when that organization demands it back in November 2004. In February 2006, Al Haramain will sue the Bush administration for illegally spying on it (see February 28, 2006) as part of its warrantless wiretapping program (see After September 11, 2001 and December 15, 2005). The Treasury Department has been investigating the charitable organization for possible ties to terrorism, and designated the group as a terrorist organization. The FBI will approach the organization and then Ottaway himself, demanding that all copies of the document be returned and threatening them with prosecution if the contents are revealed. Ottaway will consult with Post editors and lawyers, who will conclude, according to Ottaway, “that it was not relevant to what I was working on at the time.” Post executive editor Leonard Downie, Jr., will defend the decision, saying, “At the time we had this document, it was before we had any knowledge of the eavesdropping program. Without that knowledge, the document provided no useful information. At the time, all we knew was that this document was not relevant to David’s reporting.” [Washington Post, 3/3/2006]

Entity Tags: US Department of the Treasury, Washington Post, Leonard Downie, Jr., Al Haramain Islamic Foundation (Oregon branch), Bush administration (43), National Security Agency, David Ottaway, Federal Bureau of Investigation

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties, Domestic Propaganda

New York Times headline from article revealing NSA surveillance.New York Times headline from article revealing NSA surveillance. [Source: CBS News]The New York Times reveals that after the 9/11 attacks, President Bush granted the National Security Agency (NSA) secret authorization to eavesdrop on Americans and others inside the US without going through the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court to obtain legal warrants (see Early 2002. The administration justifies its actions by claiming such eavesdropping, which includes wiretapping phones and reading e-mails, is necessary to find evidence of terrorist activities, and says the nation needs the program after the 9/11 attacks exposed deficiencies in the US intelligence community’s information gathering process, and because of what they characterize as the “handcuffing” of US intelligence agencies by restrictive laws. The Times has had the article for over a year; the White House prevailed on the Times not to publish its findings for that time, arguing that publication would jeopardize continuing investigations and warn potential terrorists that they were under scrutiny. Many believe that the White House wanted to delay the publication of the article until well after the 2004 presidential elections. The Times delayed publication for over a year, and agreed to suppress some information that administration officials say could be useful to terrorists. (Less than two weeks before the article is published, Bush tries to convince the Times not to print the article at all: see December 6, 2005.) Two days after the Times publishes its article, Bush will acknowledge the order, and accuse the Times of jeopardizing national security (see December 17, 2005). The NSA program eavesdrops without warrants on up to 500 people in the US at any given time, officials say; the overall numbers have likely reached into the thousands. Overseas, up to 7,000 people suspected of terrorist ties are being monitored. Officials point to the discovery of a plot by Ohio trucker and naturalized US citizen and alleged al-Qaeda supporter Iyman Faris to bring down the Brooklyn Bridge with blowtorches as evidence of the program’s efficacy. They also cite the disruption of an al-Qaeda plot to detonate fertilizer bombs outside of British pubs and train stations by the program. But, officials say, most people targeted by the NSA for warrantless wiretapping have never been charged with a crime, and many are targeted because of questionable evidence and groundless suspicion. Many raise an outcry against the program, including members of Congress, civil liberties groups, immigrant rights groups, and others who insist that the program undermines fundamental Constitutional protections of US citizens’ civil liberties and rights to privacy. Several other government programs to spy on Americans have been challenged, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)‘s surveillance of US citizens’ library and Internet usage, the monitoring of peaceful antiwar protests, and the proposed use of public and private databases to hunt for terrorist links. In 2004, the Supreme Court overturned the administration’s claim that so-called “enemy detainees” were not entitled to judicial review of their indefinite detentions. Several senior officials say that when the warrantless wiretapping program began, it operated with few controls and almost no oversight outside of the NSA itself. The agency is not required to seek the approval of the Justice Department or anyone else outside the FISA court for its surveillance operations. Some NSA officials wanted nothing to do with a program they felt was patently illegal, according to a former senior Bush administration official. Internal concerns about the program prompted the Bush administration to briefly suspend the program while Justice Department officials audited it and eventually provided some guidelines for its operations. A complaint from Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, the federal judge who oversees the FISA Court, helped spur the suspension, according to officials. Kollar-Kotelly questioned whether information obtained under the program was being improperly used as the basis for FISA wiretap warrant requests from the Justice Department. Some government lawyers say that the Justice Department may have deliberately misled Kollar-Kotelly and the FISA court about the program in order to keep the program under wraps. The judge insisted to Justice Department officials that any material gathered under the program not be used in seeking wiretap warrants from her court. The question also arose in the Faris case, when senior Justice Department officials worried that evidence obtained by warrantless wiretapping by the NSA of Faris could be used in court without having to lie to the court about its origins. [New York Times, 12/15/2005]

Entity Tags: US Supreme Court, George W. Bush, US Department of Justice, Iyman Faris, National Security Agency, New York Times, Al-Qaeda, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, Colleen Kollar-Kotelly

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The Al Haramain Islamic Foundation, a now-defunct Saudi Arabian charitable organization that once operated in Oregon, sues the Bush administration [Associated Press, 2/28/2006] over what it calls illegal surveillance of its telephone and e-mail communications by the National Security Agency, the so-called Terrorist Surveillance Program. The lawsuit may provide the first direct evidence of US residents and citizens being spied upon by the Bush administration’s secret eavesdropping program, according to the lawsuit (see December 15, 2005). According to a source familiar with the case, the NSA monitored telephone conversations between Al Haramain’s director, then in Saudi Arabia, and two US citizens working as lawyers for the organization and operating out of Washington, DC. The lawsuit alleges that the NSA violated the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (see 1978), the US citizens’ Fourth Amendment rights, and the attorney-client privilege. FISA experts say that while they are unfamiliar with the specifics of this lawsuit, they question whether a FISA judge would have allowed surveillance of conversations between US lawyers and their client under the circumstances described in the lawsuit. Other lawsuits have been filed against the Bush administration over suspicions of illegal government wiretapping, but this is the first lawsuit to present classified government documents as evidence to support its contentions. The lawsuit alleges that the NSA illegally intercepted communications between Al Haramain officer Suliman al-Buthe in Saudi Arabia, and its lawyers Wendell Belew and Asim Ghafoor in Washington. One of its most effective pieces of evidence is a document accidentally turned over to the group by the Treasury Department, dated May 24, 2004, that shows the NSA did indeed monitor conversations between Al Haramain officials and lawyers. When Al Haramain officials received the document in late May, 2004, they gave a copy to the Washington Post, whose editors and lawyers decided, under threat of government prosecution, to return the document to the government rather than report on it (see Late May, 2004). [Washington Post, 3/2/2006; Washington Post, 3/3/2006] Lawyer Thomas Nelson, who represents Al Haramain and Belew, later recalls he didn’t realize what the organization had until he read the New York Times’s December 2005 story of the NSA’s secret wiretapping program (see December 15, 2005). “I got up in the morning and read the story, and I thought, ‘My god, we had a log of a wiretap and it may or may not have been the NSA and on further reflection it was NSA,’” Nelson will recall. “So we decided to file a lawsuit.” Nelson and other lawyers were able to retrieve one of the remaining copies of the document, most likely from Saudi Arabia, and turned it over to the court as part of their lawsuit. [Wired News, 3/5/2007]
Al Haramain Designated a Terrorist Organization - In February 2004, the Treasury Department froze the organization’s US financial assets pending an investigation, and in September 2004, designated it a terrorist organization, citing ties to al-Qaeda and alleging financial ties between Al Haramain and the 1998 bombings of two US embassies in Africa (see 10:35-10:39 a.m., August 7, 1998). The organization was disbanded by the Saudi Arabian government in June 2004 and folded into an “umbrella” private Saudi charitable organization, the Saudi National Commission for Relief and Charity Work Abroad (see March 2002-September 2004). In February 2005, the organization was indicted for conspiring to funnel money to Islamist fighters in Chechnya. The charges were later dropped. [US Treasury Department, 9/9/2004; Washington Post, 3/2/2006] The United Nations has banned the organization, saying it has ties to the Taliban. [United Nations, 7/27/2007]
Challenging Designation - In its lawsuit, Al Haramain is also demanding that its designation as a terrorist organization be reversed. It says it can prove that its financial support for Chechen Muslims was entirely humanitarian, with no connections to terrorism or violence, and that the Treasury Department has never provided any evidence for its claims that Al Haramain is linked to al-Qaeda or has funded terrorist activities. [Associated Press, 8/6/2007] The lawsuit also asks for $1 million in damages, and the unfreezing of Al Haramain’s US assets. [Associated Press, 8/5/2007]
Administration Seeks to Have Lawsuit Dismissed - The Bush administration will seek to have the lawsuit thrown out on grounds of national security and executive privilege (see Late 2006-July 2007, Mid-2007).

Entity Tags: Wendell Belew, Suliman al-Buthe, Taliban, Washington Post, United Nations, Saudi National Commission for Relief and Charity Work Abroad, US Department of the Treasury, National Security Agency, Thomas Nelson, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, Al Haramain Islamic Foundation, Al-Qaeda, Al Haramain Islamic Foundation (Oregon branch), Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, Asim Ghafoor, Bush administration (43)

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

The Director of National Intelligence, John Negroponte, and NSA Director Keith Alexander try to get a lawsuit dismissed that alleges the NSA illegally wiretapped a Saudi charitable organization (see February 28, 2006). The organization, the Al Haramain Islamic Foundation, is presenting a classified US document as proof of the illegal wiretapping.
Invoking 'State Secrets' Privilege - In late 2006, Negroponte and Alexander tell the presiding judge, US District Judge Garr King, that in order to defend itself, the government would have to disclose “state secrets” (see March 9, 1953) that would expose US anti-terrorism efforts. This same argument will be reiterated in July 2007, when government lawyers say, “Whether plaintiffs were subjected to surveillance is a state secret, and information tending to confirm or deny that fact is privileged.” The judge will hear arguments for and against dismissing the case on August 15, 2007. [Associated Press, 8/5/2007]
Judicial Examination - King, in Portland, Oregon, examined the document for himself, and read classified briefs supplied by the Justice Department. Upon reading the briefs, King met with government lawyers to discuss turning over yet more documents in discovery—a decision unlikely to have been taken had King not believed the evidence did not show that the Al Haramain plaintiffs were, in fact, monitored. And, under FISA, had the surveillance been lawful and court-ordered, King would have been legally constrained to dismiss the lawsuit, since according to that law, plaintiffs can only sue if no warrant was ever issued for the alleged surveillance. “If there was a FISA warrant, the whole case would have crumbled on the first day,” says plaintiff attorney Thomas Nelson, “It’s pretty obvious from the government’s conduct in the case, there was no warrant.”
'Inherent Authority' of President - Justice Department lawyers rely on the argument that the president has the inherent authority to order surveillance of suspected terrorists with or without warrants, and that to judge the president’s decision would reveal national secrets that would alert terrorists to government anti-terrorist actions, thereby mandating that this and other lawsuits be dismissed.
Consolidation of Lawsuits - An August 2006 court ruling ordering that the Al Haramain case be consolidated with 54 other NSA-related lawsuits, under US District Court Judge Vaughn Walker, damaged the government’s argument that it cannot be sued in court. Walker has presided over the year-old class-action lawsuit brought before his court by the Electronic Frontier Foundation against AT&T for the telecom firm’s cooperation with the NSA program (see January 31, 2006); Walker ruled in July 2006 that the case would proceed, against government requests that it be thrown out because of national security requirements. Walker ruled that because the government had already admitted to the existence of the program, the state secrets privilege does not apply. (The Justice Department is appealing Walker’s decision.) As for Al Haramain, its lawyers want that case to be adjudicated separately, because the court has sufficient evidence to decide on the case without waiting for the appellate court decision. Another lawyer for the plaintiffs, Jon Eisenberg, tells Walker in February 2007, “You need only read the statutes to decide, ‘Does the president have the right to do this without a warrant?’” Walker has yet to rule on that request. [Wired News, 3/5/2007]

Entity Tags: Thomas Nelson, Vaughn Walker, National Security Agency, US Department of Justice, Jon Eisenberg, John Negroponte, AT&T, Al Haramain Islamic Foundation (Oregon branch), Garr King, Keith Alexander, Electronic Frontier Foundation

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Most of the lawsuits filed against the US government and against a number of private telecommunications firms alleging illegal wiretapping of US citizens and foreign organizations (see January 31, 2006) are hampered by what legal experts call a “Catch 22” process: lawyers for the Justice Department and for the firms that are alleged to have cooperated with the government in wiretapping citizens and organizations argue that the lawsuits have no merits because the plaintiffs cannot prove that they were direct victims of government surveillance. At the same time, the lawyers argue that the government cannot reveal if any individuals were or were not monitored because the “state secrets privilege” (see March 9, 1953) allows it to withhold information if it might damage national security. Lawyer Shayana Kadidal, who is representing the Center for Constitutional Rights in another lawsuit on behalf of Guantanamo Bay detainees, says, “The government’s line is that if you don’t have evidence of actual surveillance, you lose on standing.”
One Lawsuit Has Evidence of Surveillance - But the lawsuit filed by Saudi charitable organization the Al Haramain Islamic Foundation (see February 28, 2006) is different, because the plaintiffs have an actual classified US document that they say proves their allegations. Kadidal says that because of that document, “[T]his is the only one with evidence of actual surveillance” and therefore has a much stronger chance of going forward. The Justice Department will not confirm, or deny, if anyone from Al Haramain was monitored either under the Terrorist Surveillance Program or any other government operation, but plaintiff lawyer Jon Eisenberg tells a judge in July 2007: “We know how many times [my client has] been surveilled. There is nothing left for this court to do except hear oral arguments on the legality of the program.”
Extraordinary Measures to Keep Document 'Secure' - Though the Justice Department has repeatedly argued that the Treasury Department document at the heart of the case is harmless and unrelated to NSA surveillance, it is taking extraordinary measures to keep it secure—it is held under strict government seal and remains classified as top secret. Even the plaintiff’s lawyers are no longer allowed to see the document, and have been forced to file briefs with the court based on their memories of the document. [Wired News, 3/5/2007]
Expert: Government Cannot Stop Case - The government probably does not have enough to derail the Al Haramain case, according to law professor Curtis Bradley. In August 2007, Bradley observes, “The biggest obstacle this litigation has faced is the problem showing someone was actually subjected to surveillance,” but the lawsuit “has a very good chance to proceed farther than the other cases because it’s impossible for the government to erase [the lawyers’] memories of the document.” [Associated Press, 8/5/2007]

Entity Tags: US Department of Justice, Terrorist Surveillance Program, Shayana Kadidal, Jon Eisenberg, Curtis Bradley, Al Haramain Islamic Foundation (Oregon branch), National Security Agency, Center for Constitutional Rights

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

AT&T attorney Michael Kellogg enters the courtroom.AT&T attorney Michael Kellogg enters the courtroom. [Source: Wired News]The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco hears two related cases: one a government appeal to dismiss a case brought against AT&T for its involvement in the National Security Agency (NSA)‘s domestic wiretapping program (see July 20, 2006), and the other a challenge to the government’s authority to wiretap overseas phone calls brought on behalf of a now-defunct Islamic charity, Al Haramain (see February 28, 2006). The AT&T lawsuit is brought by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (see January 31, 2006). Among the onlookers is AT&T whistleblower Mark Klein (see December 15-31, 2005 and July 7, 2009), who has provided key documentation for the EFF lawsuit (see Early January 2006).
Government Lawyer: Court Should Grant 'Utmost Deference' to Bush Administration - Deputy Solicitor General Gregory Garre, arguing on behalf of the US government, tells Judge Harry Pregerson, one of the three judges presiding over the court, that allowing the EFF lawsuit against AT&T to go forward would result in “exceptionally grave harm to national security in the United States,” even though a previous judge has ruled otherwise (see July 20, 2006) and the government itself has admitted that none of the material to be used by EFF is classified as any sort of state secret (see June 23, 2006). Pregerson says that granting such a request would essentially make his court a “rubber stamp” for the government, to which Garre argues that Pregerson should grant the “utmost deference” to the Bush administration. Pregerson retorts: “What does utmost deference mean? Bow to it?” [Wired News, 8/15/2007] Klein will later accuse Garre of using “scare tactics” to attempt to intimidate the judges into finding in favor of AT&T and the government. [Klein, 2009, pp. 79]
Government Refuses to Swear that Domestic Surveillance Program Operates under Warrant - Garre says that the goverment’s domestic surveillance program operates entirely under judicial warrant; he says the government is not willing to sign a sworn affidavit to that effect. Reporter Kevin Poulsen, writing for Wired News, says that Garre’s admission of the government’s reluctance to swear that its domestic surveillance program operates with warrants troubles all three judges. AT&T attorney Michael Kellogg argues that AT&T customers have no proof that their communications are being given over to the government without warrants, and therefore the EFF lawsuit should be dismissed. “The government has said that whatever AT&T is doing with the government is a state secret,” Kellogg says. “As a consequence, no evidence can come in whether the individuals’ communications were ever accepted or whether we played any role in it.” EFF attorney Robert Fram argues that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) allows citizens to challenge electronic surveillance by permitting courts to hear government evidence in chambers. He is careful, Poulsen writes, to note that EFF does not want specific information on the NSA’s sources and methods, and says that EFF already has enough evidence to prove its assertion that AT&T compromised its customers’ privacy by colluding with the NSA’s domestic surveillance program.
Government Mocks Whistleblower's AT&T Documentation - Garre mocks Klein’s AT&T documents, saying that all they prove is that the NSA’s secret room in AT&T’s San Francisco facility (see Late 2002-Early 2003, January 2003, and October 2003) “has a leaky air conditioner and some loose cables in the room.” Fram counters that Klein’s documentation is specific and damning. It proves that the NSA housed a splitter cabinet in that secret room that “split” data signals, allowing the NSA to wiretap literally millions of domestic communications without the knowledge of AT&T customers (see February 2003, Fall 2003, Late 2003, and Late 2003). Fram says Klein’s documents, along with other non-classified documentation EFF has presented, proves “the privacy violation on the handover of the Internet traffic at the splitter into the secret room, which room has limited access to NSA-cleared employees. What is not part of our claim is what happens inside that room.” Klein’s documentation proves the collusion between AT&T and the NSA, Fram states, but Judge M. Margaret McKeown questions this conclusion. According to Poulsen, McKeown seems more willing to grant the government the argument that it must protect “state secrets” than Pregerson.
Government Argues for Dismissal of Al Haramain Case - As in the AT&T portion of the appeal hearing, the government, represented by Assistant US Attorney General Thomas Brody, argues for the Al Haramain lawsuit’s dismissal, saying, “The state secrets privilege requires dismissal of this case.” Even the determination as to whether Al Haramain was spied upon, he argues, “is itself a state secret.” The Top Secret government document that Al Haramain is using as the foundation of its case is too secret to be used in court, Brody argues, even though the government itself accidentally provided the charity with the document. Even the plaintiff’s memories of the document constitute “state secrets” and should be disallowed, Brody continues. “This document is totally non-redactable and non-segregable and cannot even be meaningfully described,” he says. A disconcerted Judge McKeown says, “I feel like I’m in Alice and Wonderland.” Brody concludes that it is possible the Al Haramain attorneys “think or believe or claim they were surveilled. It’s entirely possible that everything they think they know is entirely false.” [Wired News, 8/15/2007]
No Rulings Issued - The appeals court declines to rule on either case at this time. Klein will later write, “It was clear to everyone that this panel would, if they ever issued a ruling, deny the ‘state secrets’ claim and give the green light for the EFF lawsuit to go forward.” [Klein, 2009, pp. 79-81] Wired News’s Ryan Singel writes that the panel seems far more sympathetic to the EFF case than the Al Haramain case. The judges seem dismayed that the government fails to prove that no domestic surveillance program actually exists in the EFF matter. However, they seem far more willing to listen to the government’s case in the Al Haramain matter, even though McKeown says that the government’s argument has an “Alice in Wonderland” feel to it. Singel believes the government is likely to throw out the secret document Al Haramain uses as the foundation of its case. However, he writes, “all three judges seemed to believe that the government could confirm or deny a secret intelligence relationship with the nation’s largest telecom, without disclosing secrets to the world.… So seemingly, in the eyes of today’s panel of judges, in the collision between secret documents and the state secrets privilege, ‘totally secret’ documents are not allowed to play, but sort-of-secret documents—the AT&T documents—may be able to trump the power of kings to do as they will.” [Wired News, 8/15/2007] Wired News’s David Kravets notes that whichever way the court eventually rules, the losing side will continue the appeals process, probably all the way to the US Supreme Court. The biggest question, he says, is whether the NSA is still spying on millions of Americans. [Wired News, 8/15/2007]

Entity Tags: Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, US Supreme Court, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Bush administration (43), Al Haramain Islamic Foundation, AT&T, David Kravets, Ryan Singel, Thomas Brody, National Security Agency, Mark Klein, Kevin Poulsen, M. Margaret McKeown, Gregory Garre, Harry Pregerson, Robert Fram, Michael Kellogg

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

A federal appellate court bars an Islamic charity accused of assisting terrorists from using a US government document to prove that it had been illegally spied upon (see February 28, 2006). The charity, the now-defunct Al Haramain Islamic Foundation (see Late May, 2004), has been accused by the government and the UN Security Council of being affiliated with al-Qaeda; the charity’s officials deny the charges. In its finding, the three-judge panel rules in favor of the government’s argument that protecting “state secrets” (see March 9, 1953) is of overriding importance in the case. Other courts have ruled that the Bush administration can refuse to disclose information if “there is a reasonable danger” it would affect national security. Al Haramain’s lawyers argued that the document is necessary to prove that it was illegally monitored. According to the ruling, the judges accept “the need to defer to the executive on matters of foreign and national security and surely cannot legitimately find ourselves second-guessing the executive in this arena.”
Reaction Divided - Opinion is divided on the ruling. Constitutional law professor Erwin Chemerinsky of Duke University says the court’s deference to the “executive branch in situations like this [is] very troubling.” Another constitutional law professor, Douglas Kmiec of Pepperdine, says “the opinion is consistent with” an earlier ruling that struck down a challenge to the government’s surveillance program filed by the American Civil Liberties Union; Kmiec says the rulings indicate that “federal courts recognize that the essential aspects of the Terrorist Surveillance Program both remain secret and are important to preserve as such.”
Mixed Results - The appellate court does not give the government everything it asked for. It rejects the Justice Department’s argument that “the very subject matter of the litigation is a state secret.” That finding may prove important in the other surveillance cases where the government is arguing that even to consider legal challenges to warrantless wiretapping endangers national security. The appeals court sends the case back to a lower court to consider whether or not the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which requires approval by a special court for domestic surveillance, preempts the state secrets privilege. The court also severs the Al Haramain case from other, similar lawsuits challenging the government’s secret surveillance program. [Los Angeles Times, 11/17/2007]

Entity Tags: United Nations Security Council, US Department of Justice, Erwin Chemerinsky, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, Al-Qaeda, Al Haramain Islamic Foundation (Oregon branch), Douglas Kmiec, Bush administration (43), Terrorist Surveillance Program

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Judge Vaughn Walker rules that “sufficient facts” exist to keep alive a lawsuit brought by the defunct Islamic charity Al Haramain, which alleges it was subjected to illegal, warrantless wiretapping by the US government (see February 28, 2006). The lawsuit centers on a Top Secret government document accidentally disclosed to plaintiffs’ lawyers Wendell Belew and Asim Ghafoo that allegedly proves the claim of illegal wiretapping; previous court rulings forced Belew and Ghafoo to return the document to the government and prohibited its use in the lawsuit. The lawsuit is widely viewed as a test case to decide in court whether the Bush administration abused its power by authorizing a secret domestic spying program (see Spring 2004 and December 15, 2005). Jon Eisenberg, the lawyer for Belew and Ghafoo, says it does not matter whether the case pertains to the Bush administration or the incoming Obama administration. “I don’t want President Obama to have that power any more than I do President Bush,” he says. Because the lawsuit contains sufficient evidence even without the Top Secret document, Walker rules, it can continue. “The plaintiffs have alleged sufficient facts to withstand the government’s motion to dismiss,” he writes. Therefore, he adds, the law demands that they be allowed to review the classified document, and others, to determine whether the lawyers were spied on illegally and whether Bush’s spy program was unlawful. “To be more specific, the court will review the sealed document ex parte and in camera,” Walker writes. “The court will then issue an order regarding whether plaintiffs may proceed—that is, whether the sealed document establishes that plaintiffs were subject to electronic surveillance not authorized by FISA” (the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act—see 1978). [Wired News, 1/5/2009]

Entity Tags: Vaughn Walker, Al Haramain Islamic Foundation, Asim Ghafoo, Jon Eisenberg, Bush administration (43), Wendell Belew, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, Obama administration

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

As one of its last official acts, the Bush administration asks federal judge Vaughn Walker to stay his ruling that keeps alive a lawsuit testing whether a sitting president can bypass Congress and eavesdrop on Americans without warrants. The request, filed at 10:56 p.m. on President Bush’s last full day in office, asks Walker to stay his ruling and allow the federal government to appeal his ruling that allows the al-Haramain lawsuit to proceed (see February 28, 2006). The warrantless wiretapping alleged in the lawsuit took place in 2004, well before Congress’s 2008 authorization of the government’s spy program. The Obama administration’s incoming Attorney General, Eric Holder, says the Justice Department will defend the spy program because Congress made it legal (see January 15, 2009). It is not clear whether the Justice Department under Holder will continue to fight the Al Haramain lawsuit. The Bush administration wants Walker to reverse his decision to let plaintiffs’ lawyers Wendell Belew and Asim Ghafoo use a Top Secret document that was accidentally disclosed to them in 2004 (see January 5, 2009); that document, which allegedly proves the warrantless and illegal nature of the wiretapping performed against the Al Haramain charity, is at the center of the lawsuit. Previous rulings disallowed the use of the document and forced the defense lawyers to return it to the government, but Walker ruled that other evidence supported the claim of warrantless wiretapping, and therefore the document could be used. In its request for a stay, the Bush administration asserts that allowing the document to be used in the lawsuit would jeopardize national security, and that the document is protected under the state secrets privilege (see March 9, 1953). Administration lawyers say that Walker should not be allowed to see the document, much less the defense lawyers. “If the court were to find… that none of the plaintiffs are aggrieved parties, the case obviously could not proceed, but such a holding would reveal to plaintiffs and the public at large information that is protected by the state secrets privilege—namely, that certain individuals were not subject to alleged surveillance,” the administration writes in its request. If the lawsuit continues, the government says, that decision “would confirm that a plaintiff was subject to surveillance” and therefore should not be allowed: “Indeed, if the actual facts were that just one of the plaintiffs had been subject to alleged surveillance, any such differentiation likewise could not be disclosed because it would inherently reveal intelligence information as to who was and was not a subject of interest, which communications were and were not of intelligence interest, and which modes of communication were and were not of intelligence interest, and which modes of communication may or may not have been subject to surveillance.” Jon Eisenberg, the lawyer for Belew and Ghafoo, says: “We filed this lawsuit to establish a judicial precedent that the president cannot disregard Congress in the name of national security. Plaintiffs have a right to litigate the legality of the surveillance.” [Wired News, 1/20/2009]

Entity Tags: Jon Eisenberg, Asim Ghafoo, Al Haramain Islamic Foundation, Bush administration (43), Obama administration, Eric Holder, Wendell Belew, Vaughn Walker, US Department of Justice, George W. Bush

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

A federal appeals court rejects the Obama administration’s assertion that a potential threat to national security should stop a lawsuit challenging the government’s warrantless wiretapping program. The Justice Department had requested an emergency stay in a case brought by a defunct Islamic charity, the Al Haramain Islamic Foundation (see February 28, 2006). Al Haramain has asked that classified information be made available to the court to prove its case that the electronic surveillance brought to bear against it by the government was illegal; Justice Department lawyers contend that the information needs to remain classified and unavailable to the court, and cite the “state secrets” privilege (see March 9, 1953) as legal justification. Although the court rejects the request for the stay, Justice Department lawyers say they will continue fighting to keep the information secret. “The government respectfully requests that the court refrain from further actions to provide plaintiffs with access to classified information,” says a filing made by the Justice Department in regards to the ruling. A lawyer for Al Haramain, Steven Goldberg, says: “All we wanted was our day in court and it looks like we’re finally going to get our day in court. This case is all about challenging an assertion of power by the executive branch which is extraordinary.” The American Civil Liberties Union’s Ann Brick says the court has now crafted a way to review the issue in which “national security isn’t put at risk, but the rule of law can still be observed.” [Associated Press, 2/27/2009] Days later, the Justice Department will file a brief announcing its intention to refuse to honor the appeals court’s decision (see March 2, 2009).

Entity Tags: Obama administration, Ann Brick, Steven Goldberg, US Department of Justice, Al Haramain Islamic Foundation

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

A US District Court judge awards damages in a lawsuit, finding the NSA illegally monitored the calls of the plaintiffs. The Al Haramain Islamic Foundation and two of its lawyers, Wendell Belew and Asim Ghafoor, sued the US government in 2006 based on evidence that their calls had been monitored; the US Treasury Department inadvertently provided them with an NSA log in August 2004 showing their calls had been monitored in May of that year (see February 28, 2006). In defending against the suit, the Justice Department argued, first under President Bush and then under President Obama, that the case should be dismissed based on the government’s invocation of the state secrets privilege (see March 9, 1953) concerning the NSA log, and that the plaintiffs could not otherwise demonstrate that surveillance had occurred, meaning the plaintiffs had no standing to bring suit. Judge Vaughn Walker rejected these arguments, noting that the plaintiffs had introduced into evidence a speech posted on FBI’s Web site by FBI Deputy Director John Pistole to the American Bankers Association (ABA), in which he said that surveillance had been used to develop a case by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) against Al-Haramain, and Congressional testimony by Bush administration officials that disclosed the manner in which electronic surveillance was conducted. In the summary of his decision, Vaughn wrote, “[The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] FISA takes precedence over the state secrets privilege in this case,” and “defendants have failed to meet their burden to [provide] evidence that a FISA warrant was obtained, that plaintiffs were not surveilled or that the surveillance was otherwise lawful.” [Al-Haramain v. Obama, 3/31/2010; Washington Post, 4/1/2010, pp. A04]

Entity Tags: George W. Bush, Asim Ghafoor, Anthony J. Coppolino, Alberto R. Gonzales, Al Haramain Islamic Foundation (Oregon branch), “Justice Department”, Barack Obama, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Robert S. Mueller III, Suliman al-Buthe, Keith Alexander, Eric Holder, US Department of the Treasury, Wendell Belew, Vaughn Walker, National Security Agency

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

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