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Profile: Thomas Nelson

Thomas Nelson was a participant or observer in the following events:

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

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