SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – Federal attorneys on Wednesday asked a judge to dismiss charges that the government spied illegally and without warrant on an Islamic foundation. But Chief U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker said the lawyer for the Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation had presented “strong evidence that his client was subjected to electronic surveillance.”
Judge Walker heard arguments on the government’s motion to dismiss the Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation’s civil rights complaint.
The foundation’s lead attorney Jon Eisenberg asked that Walker rule former President George W. Bush’s secret wiretapping program illegal.
“This goes to the heart of the constitutional separation of powers,” Eisenberg said. “Can the president of the United States break the law in the name of national security? We ask the court to say, ‘No,'”
The now-inactive Oregon-based charity sued the government in 2006. The Bush administration claimed that a 2004 investigation found links between the group’s lawyers and Al-Qaeda.
The foundation claims federal authorities spied on its lawyers’ phone calls and that it is entitled to damages.
“I myself would be shocked if the government believed [Al-Haramain] were terrorists, had the warrantless wiretapping program in place and didn’t wiretap Al-Haramain,” said Eisenberg.
But Justice Department lawyer Anthony Coppolino, who called Eisenberg’s argument “speculative and conjectural,” said the group cannot prove the government illegally wiretapped it without classified documents. And Coppolino said that releasing those documents would jeopardize national security.
“This group is a designated terrorist organization with links to Al-Qaeda established well before 2004,” Coppolino said. But he said the need to “protect the methods for how we detect and prevent terror attacks outweighs the plaintiffs’ personal claims.”
Eisenberg said the government knew its program was unconstitutional.
“All Mr. Coppolino needs to do is tell me the government had a warrant, and I’ll be gone,” Eisenberg said. “I wish I knew three years ago because it would have saved me a lot of work. I’d be working on other cases right now, probably several other cases.”