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Court Demands More Information|on Feds’ Secret Spying Program

(CN) - A federal judge ordered the federal government Monday to provide more detail on a "mysterious" law enforcement database that sparked the investigation of a man charged with violating the trade embargo against Iran.

The U.S. government maintains that Homeland Security investigators did not spy on defendant Shantia Hassanshahi using the National Security Agency's bulk telephony metadata program, which collects individuals' phone calls and records.

But Hassanshahi argues that the government used the mass surveillance program, or at least something like it, to access telephone records that helped secure his arrest.

A 2013 grand jury indicted Hassanshahi and his company Hasston Inc. of exporting protection relay, parts and accessories to Iran for a power plant. It alleged that Hassanshahi ordered the parts for a company in Canada, which then shipped the parts to Armenia.

Eventually, the parts found their way to a business address in Tehran, the government claims.

In 2011, Homeland Security investigators received an email tip from a source who said a Tehran-based businessman asked him to help purchase protection relays.

U.S. agents searched the undisclosed database using the Tehran businessman's telephone number and discovered he had called a Los Angeles-area phone number assigned to Google Voice, according to court records.

Google identified the number as belonging to Hassanshahi and provided the government with logs that pinpointed the call from an unknown Iranian number on Oct. 5, 2011.

Investigators allegedly discovered that Hassanshahi was the subject of a previous investigation into possible trade embargo violations, and that he traveled frequently between the Middle East and the United States.

After flagging Hassanshahi for closer scrutiny, border agents seized Hassanshahi's laptop, cellphone and other electronic devices at Los Angeles International Airport on his return to the United States on Jan. 12, 2012.

A forensic analysis of Hassanshahi's laptop revealed that he had exported goods worth $6 million to Armenia that eventually ended up in Iran, federal prosecutors claim.

The government said the analysis also uncovered a letter to the Iranian government in which Hassanshahi asked the Iranian Minister of Energy to make a payment for protective relays used on transmission lines.

But after his indictment in Washington, D.C., Hassanshahi argued that the initial database search that uncovered his call record was unconstitutional and led to the unlawful search and seizure of his laptop.

In court documents to support his motion to suppress the evidence found on the laptop, Hassanshahi said the database is "identical in form, content and function as the NSA database."

"If it is not the NSA database, it is a copy of it," Hassanshahi said, adding that the government did not have anything to go on other than a "hunch" when it accessed Hassanshahi's telephone number.

"The government refuses to disclose any information about this database: what is it, is it reliable, does it even exist? For all that appears, the database is a cover for an inarticulable hunch, which will not support reasonable suspicion," Hassanshahi's attorney Saied Kashani wrote in the Nov. 4 filing.

U.S. District Judge Rudolph Contreras in Washington denied the motion to suppress on Monday, but voiced frustration that government has chosen to shroud the database in secrecy.

Its refusal to offer details on the database left the court "slightly in the dark" and in a "difficult position," Contreras wrote, adding that if the government had conceded that the database functioned in the same way as the NSA's mass surveillance program, the court would probably find that it "acted in good faith."

Without that information, Contreras said that all he could do was guess.

"The court does not know with certainty whether the HSI database actually involves the same public interests, characteristics, and limitations as the NSA program such that both databases should be regarded similarly under the Fourth Amendment," Contreras wrote. "In particular, the NSA program was specifically limited to being used for counterterrorism purposes ... and it remains unclear if the database that Homeland Security Investigation searched imposed a similar counterterrorism requirement."

The judge added: "With so many caveats, the government's litigation posture leaves the court in a difficult, and frustrating, situation."

Despite those misgivings, Contreras mostly let the government off the hook, finding that because Homeland Security had not initially targeted Hassanshahi, it did not "act purposefully or in bad faith to violate Hassanshahi's constitutional rights."

But in denying the motion, the Obama appointee also asked the government to provide the court with more information.

"The government's silence regarding the nature of the law enforcement database has made the court's analysis more complex than it should be," Contreras wrote in a footnote.

He ordered the government to summarize the "contours of the mysterious law enforcement database used by Homeland Security Investigation, including any limitations on how and when the database may be used."

Contreras also rejected Hassanshahi's argument that the government needed reasonable suspicion to examine and search his laptop after he was stopped in L.A.

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