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Profile: Wendell Belew

Wendell Belew 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

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 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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