Federal judge threatens to sanction Obama administration over secrecy


(RAW STORY)   U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker of San Francisco warned the Obama administration on Friday of severe sanctions if it does not comply with the court’s order to turn over a secret document an Islamic group says proves they were illegally spied upon.

The case, Al-Haramain v. Obama (see also: Al-Haramain V. Bush), springs out of a government mistake in which a secret document detailing the wiretapping of calls between attorneys and Saudi charity Al-Haramain was turned over to the charity’s counsel.

The document was taken back by the government, and the Department of Justice has since maintained that the attorneys who read it should not be allowed to use their memories to pursue litigation over the illegal spying.

“It could be a scene from Kafka or Brazil ,” noted Wired when the story first broke in March 2007. “Imagine a government agency, in a bureaucratic foul-up, accidentally gives you a copy of a document marked ‘top secret.’ And it contains a log of some of your private phone calls.”

“Walker, bringing to a head months of volleying between the government, the plaintiffs and himself, ordered Justice Department lawyers to explain why he should not essentially enter a default judgment against the government for violating the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act by spying on the Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation,”reported Law.com.

“The government has refused to obey court orders by repeatedly stonewalling Walker’s attempt to move the case forward, Walker wrote.”

“The Court noted the government was ‘continuing to assert legal positions already specifically rejected by the court in previous orders’ and ‘government officials in one or more defendant agencies, including the NSA Director … are refusing to cooperate with the court’s orders,’” noted the Electronic Frontiers Foundation. “Judge Walker ordered the government to show cause as to ‘why, as a sanction for failing to obey the court’s orders’ the government ’should not be prohibited … from opposing the liability’ for spying without warrants and that the ‘court should not deem liability … established and proceed to determine the amount of damages to be awarded to plaintiffs.’ A hearing is set for June 3, 2009 in the San Francisco federal court.”

Should Walker rule in favor of Al-Haramain, it would not fully satisfy the group’s legal aims, but “it would be a stiff rebuke to an administration that has pledged to reconsider Bush’s broad claims of secrecy in all cases touching on national security,”noted Bob Egelko at The San Francisco Chronicle.

He continued: “The department, under both Bush and Obama, has argued that courts have no power to decide the legality of the surveillance program unless the government acknowledges that it monitored a particular person or group. It has not done so in Al-Haramain’s case.”

“The case is one of more than three dozen domestic surveillance lawsuits pending before Walker,” reported CBS5 in San Francisco.

“Congress granted immunity to the telecommunication companies last year, essentially killing their eavesdropping lawsuits and leaving before Walker the Al-Haramain case as the only surviving legal challenge to the government’s eavesdropping program,” reported the Associated Press.


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