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Court declines appeal on 9/11 secrecy

From Bill Mears
CNN Washington Bureau

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The U.S. Supreme Court gave the government the power to pursue certain terrorism cases in near total secrecy Monday, declining an appeal by an Algerian immigrant detained after the attacks of September 11, 2001.

Without commenting, the justices refused to intervene in the issue over whether the former detainee and media organizations had the right of access to sealed court proceedings.

Mohamed Kamel Bellahouel's attorneys said he was never charged with a crime and deserves public scrutiny to prove his innocence.

The lower federal courts have released little about the case, and lawyers are forbidden from commenting. Court hearings have been closed, and records are sealed. Officially, Bellahouel is identified only by his initials M.K.B.

A clerical error by a federal appeals court inadvertently made some details public, including Bellahouel's identity.

The Justice Department has said names and details about detainees in such cases must remain secret to preserve national security.

Even the government's legal brief to the high court was kept under wraps, with Solicitor General Theodore Olson saying, "This matter pertains to information that is required to be kept under seal."

Immigrants detained after attacks

The high court occasionally has kept parts of cases secret because of privacy or limited national security reasons, but rarely are entire proceedings kept secret.

In November, the justices asked the Bush administration to justify the secrecy.

The government used similar rules after detaining hundreds of immigrants, many of them Middle Eastern or Muslim men, in the weeks after the September 11 attacks.

In those cases, the government justified a blanket policy of closing those immigration-court proceedings to the press and public by arguing the need to prevent information from reaching terrorists.

The issue before the Supreme Court in Bellahouel's case was whether such secrecy could be used when someone challenges the government to justify their detention.

In an appeal filed by Bellahouel, small parts of which have been made public, federal public defender Kathleen Williams asked for Supreme Court intervention "to preserve and protect the public's common-law and First Amendment rights to know, but also to reinforce those rights in a time of increased national suspicion about the free flow of information and debate."

Bellahouel said he wants an open hearing.

"It's not just for us that we want this to be public," he said. "It's for all the people that have been detained, and they can't get their cases unsealed either. Or they can't speak about their cases or proclaim their innocence."

Bellahouel's appeal is supported by a number of media organizations, including CNN. Those groups filed a legal brief last week saying open hearings "protect their interests and those of the public."

"A free and open society cannot tolerate hiding federal court proceedings from public view," said Lucy A. Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters' Committee for Freedom of the Press.

"By participating in this case, the media aim to ensure that the proper balance is drawn between secrecy in the name of national security and the public's right to know."

Man denies involvement in terrorism

Many of the details surrounding Bellahouel were first reported by the Daily Business Review, a Miami, Florida, newspaper.

Bellahouel, 34, was one of hundreds of mostly Muslim or Arab men rounded up after the September 2001 attacks. He denies any involvement in terrorism.

"What happened was I believe unjust and inhuman," he told CNN in November. "And I think it was a lot of discrimination on it."

After working as a waiter in Florida, Bellahouel was reportedly questioned by the FBI and taken before a federal grand jury as a material witness.

He allegedly served meals in the Miami area to two of the September 11 hijackers, Mohamed Atta and Marwan Al-Shehhi , shortly before the attacks.

He is married to an American and was taken into immigration custody in October 2001. He was eventually released on bond five months later.

The case is M.K.B. v. Warden, Case No. 03-6747.

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