Oregon Lawsuit Challenges Domestic Spying

A lawsuit filed in Portland, Ore., alleges that the federal government illegally wiretapped lawyers for an Islamist charity based in that state. As Colin Fogarty of Oregon Public Broadcasting reports, it isn't the first legal challenge to the warrantless surveillance program but it's the first to claim specific documented evidence.

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A lawsuit filed in Portland, Oregon, this week alleges that the federal government illegally wiretapped lawyers for an Islamic charity. This isn't the first legal challenge to President Bush's warrantless surveillance program, but it appears to be the first to claim specific, documented evidence. Colin Fogarty reports from Oregon Public Broadcasting.

COLIN FOGARTY reporting:

The case involves an Islamic charity called Al-Haramain based in the southern Oregon town of Ashland. The government believes the group had terrorist connections. Its director, Soliman Al-Buthe, was indicted on tax evasion charges. The group's Portland attorney, Thomas Nelson, says the organization was only interested in providing aid to refugees in Chechnya. Nonetheless, the government froze Al-Haramain's assets in 2004.

Mr. THOMAS NELSON (Portland Attorney): The building in Ashland is sitting there, dark and cold and damp, and nobody can use it. The feds have put locks on the doors that I don't have keys to.

FOGARTY: Al-Haramain Oregon, was affiliated with a parent organization in Saudi Arabia. Nelson's lawsuit charges that in March and April of 2004, the NSA listened into conversations between its director in Saudi Arabia and two attorneys in Washington, D.C. Nelson says he has documentation of this, but won't say exactly what he's got.

Mr. NELSON: I can't get into that. That's an area I just can't get into. We'll be talking to the government about that.

FOGARTY: But you do have evidence of it?

Mr. NELSON: Well, I can't even say that.

FOGARTY: What Nelson's lawsuit does say is that it relies on "logs of conversations." If those logs are a National Security Agency record of wiretapping, as many expect, this would explain Nelson's hesitancy to discuss them. In fact, the lawsuit was accompanied by a motion to file a piece of evidence under seal, saying the defendant, the federal government, is in a better position to say who should access that documented information.

Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz says this documented information is what makes the case different.

Mr. ALAN DERSHOWITZ (Harvard Law School): The courts don't like to decide abstract legal issues. They like particular cases, and when you get a lawsuit that says, look, we were overheard on this day at this time without authorization by law, that's just the kind of lawsuit that has some real promise.

FOGARTY: The U.S. Attorney's Office in Portland declined to comment on tape on the lawsuit, but Assistant U.S. Attorney Berry Sheldahl, did say there were too many unknowns about this case, including whether the government had a secret warrant from a FISA court to do the surveillance. Even so, Christopher Pyle from Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts says he's following the case closely. He participated in several lawsuits over government wiretapping in the 1970s and helped write the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, FISA.

He says what's significant about the Al-Haramain lawsuit is that it not only claims to have direct evidence, but also claims to show there was direct harm when the government froze its assets.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER PYLE (Mount Holyoke College, Massachusetts): I think this case goes to the head of the line. This is the most important case because the government will have the hardest time brushing this one off.

FOGARTY: Whether the government can brush this case aside depends largely on how a federal court in Portland treats those "logs of conversations" documented in the lawsuit.

For NPR News, I'm Colin Fogarty in Portland.

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