Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation Awarded Damages in Wiretap Case

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The San Francisco Chronicle

Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation Awarded Damages in Wiretap Case

by
Bob Egelko

A federal judge ordered the government Tuesday to pay $40,800 in damages and $2.5 million in legal fees for wiretapping an Islamic organization without a warrant as part of President George W. Bush's secret surveillance program.

Although the government has classified Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation as a terrorist organization, the group's lawyers accomplished "a vindication of constitutional rights that serves the greater public interest" in challenging the wiretapping, said Chief U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker.

Walker ruled in March that federal agents had illegally eavesdropped on Al-Haramain and two of its lawyers during a terrorism investigation in 2004. It was the only ruling in the nation against the surveillance program, which has been challenged in numerous cases.

Tuesday's order completes Walker's work on the case and allows the Obama administration to appeal the wiretap ruling.

The administration has argued that the suit endangers state secrets and national security. But the Justice Department has not said whether it will ask higher courts to uphold the surveillance, which was part of a program that President Obama criticized as a candidate.

Jon Eisenberg, Al-Haramain's lead attorney, said the Obama administration "has embraced the power grab and abusive litigation tactics of the Bush administration" in the court case.

Bush acknowledged in 2005 that he had authorized federal agents after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to intercept phone calls and e-mails between Americans and suspected foreign terrorists without the warrants that Congress had required in a 1978 law.

He claimed inherent power to override the law, an argument Walker rejected.

Unlike all others who had challenged the surveillance program, Al-Haramain, a now-defunct charity, had evidence that it had been wiretapped - a secret document that the government inadvertently sent to the organization.

Although Al-Haramain was barred from using the document in its lawsuit, Walker ruled in March that the organization had presented enough public evidence to show that it had been the target of illegal surveillance.

On Tuesday, the judge awarded damages of $100 a day, the maximum allowed by the 1978 law, to two Al-Haramain attorneys whose phone calls he found were intercepted for nearly seven months in 2004.

Walker refused to award punitive damages, saying the government had believed it was acting legally. But he granted the lawyers' request for $2.5 million in fees.

The attorneys prevailed against a government that "has fiercely litigated this case from the beginning," Walker said.

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