Oregon Man Sues over FBI Mistake in Madrid Case

Brandon Mayfield was accused of being linked to the transit bombings in Madrid last year. He spent two weeks in FBI custody until the agency admitted it mistakenly matched his fingerprint with another person.

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The Oregon man who was mistakenly linked to last year's deadly bombings in Madrid is suing the government for violating his civil liberties. Brandon Mayfield spent two weeks in custody last year until the FBI admitted it had erroneously identified a fingerprint from Madrid as his. NPR's Martin Kaste reports.

MARTIN KASTE reporting:

With a lawsuit pending, Brandon Mayfield is not talking to the media about the time he spent in jail, but he did last year.

Mr. BRANDON MAYFIELD (Suing the Government): My blood pressure, you know, has risen. My pulse has risen. My heart hurts. They're going to cause somebody a heart attack; maybe they have, I don't know. Do they pay for that afterwards? I don't think so.

KASTE: That's something Mayfield is now trying to find out for himself. His lawsuit alleges not only that he was wrongly jailed, but that the FBI singled him out because he's a Muslim. Lawyer Elden Rosenthal says the FBI pressed ahead with the investigation even when it realized that the two fingerprints were not a good match. But he admits it's a hard case to prove.

Mr. ELDEN ROSENTHAL (Attorney): That's one of the problems, is that the government takes the position that it doesn't have to tell us this. It doesn't have to tell anybody.

KASTE: So today, Mayfield's lawyers will try to convince a federal judge to pierce the government's veil of secrecy. They want the court to force the FBI to disclose details of its agents' secret searches of Mayfield's home and law office, including what was taken or copied. Rosenthal calls it a test case of the government's increased surveillance powers.

Mr. ROSENTHAL: This case presents in real human terms what this government can do and is doing under the Patriot Act, in effect, ignoring over 200 years of American history which requires search warrants to be issued based upon probable cause if there's going to be a criminal investigation.

KASTE: The Justice Department won't comment on the suit, which it's moved to have dismissed. Outside experts tend to think that the government doesn't have much cause for concern. Norm Abrams is the editor of the legal case book, "Anti-Terrorism and Criminal Enforcement." He says courts defer to government secrecy, especially in a low-stakes case such as this one.

Mr. NORM ABRAMS ("Anti-Terrorism and Criminal Enforcement"): It's a civil suit. You know, all that's at issue is the monetary award. And on the other side of the equation is national security and protecting government secrets.

KASTE: Still, Abrams says a judge somewhere may eventually decide to test the constitutionality of these federal powers but only if there's evidence of systematic abuses. And by its very nature, Abrams says, that kind of evidence is hard to come by.

Mr. ABRAMS: It's an odd thing. We become worried because we don't know what's going on. In fact, there may be no abuses, but we can't know.

KASTE: As Abrams points out, the targets of secret surveillance rarely find out that they've been spied on, and when they do find out, they're usually in no position to file a lawsuit. Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle.

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