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Government held liable in warrantless wiretapping case

By the CNN Wire Staff
Attorney General Eric Holder has maintained the state secrets defense in the al-Haramain case.
Attorney General Eric Holder has maintained the state secrets defense in the al-Haramain case.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ruling reaffirmed earlier decision that the warrantless wiretaps were illegal.
  • District Judge Vaughn R. Walker said the government is liable for damages
  • Justice Department spokeswoman said the ruling was under review
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San Francisco, California -- A federal judge ruled Wednesday that the government is liable for illegally wiretapping an Islamic charity without a valid search warrant.

The ruling in Northern California District Court reaffirmed an earlier decision that the warrantless wiretaps conducted on an Oregon-based Islamic non-profit organization were illegal.

In Wednesday's ruling, District Judge Vaughn R. Walker said the government is liable for damages from the illegal wiretapping.

The United States has designated the Oregon-based al-Haramain Islamic Foundation as a terrorist organization. The group, which has sued the government over alleged warrantless wiretapping, is demanding classified information about the program launched by President George W. Bush's administration.

U.S. officials have refused to tell the charity's lawyers whether the group was subjected to presidentially authorized, warrantless, foreign intelligence surveillance in 2004 and, if so, what information was obtained.

The U.S. stance originated under the Bush administration in what is called the "state secrets" defense, which allows courts to block lawsuits against the government on grounds that the litigation could harm national security. Under Bush, the government refused to turn over any classified evidence.

Attorney General Eric Holder, appointed when President Barack Obama took office in January 2009, has so far maintained the state secrets defense in the al-Haramain case, but indicated a willingness to consider sharing information with judges in certain cases.

"An additional review was conducted at the highest levels of the Department of Justice to determine whether continued invocation of the privilege was warranted," the government told the court last May. "Based on that review, it is the government's position that disclosure of classified information ... would create intolerable risks to national security."

Walker's ruling Wednesday rejected that defense, saying that for the purposes of the case, the court decided there was no warrant for the wiretaps because the government refused to confirm one existed.

"Defendants have foregone multiple opportunities to show that a warrant existed, including specifically rejecting the method created by Congress for this very purpose," the ruling said.

Justice Department spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler said the ruling was under review. Schmaler noted that the Obama administration policy on the state secrets defense has changed so that it is "narrowly tailored."

The government, which has previously appealed rulings against it in the case, has 45 days to notify the court if it intends to file an appeal this time.

In 2007 the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a ruling by Walker in the same case in which he had rejected the government's state secrets privilege. The ruling, however, left unanswered whether applicable laws could pre-empt the state secrets privilege, so al-Haramain went back to court to continue the fight on that issue.

CNN's Bill Mears and Terry Frieden contributed to this story.

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