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Thursday, December 23, 2010

U.S. government to pay $2.5m damages for illegally tapping phones... of suspected Islamic terrorist group

Judge Vaughn Walker has ordered the U.S. government to pay $2.5million in fees and damages after it illegally bugged a suspected terrorist organisation's phones

The U.S. government has been ordered to pay more than $2.5million in fees and damages after it bugged the phones of a suspected terrorist organisation without a warrant.

District court judge Vaughn Walker said that lawyers for the Ashland, Oregon chapter of the now-defunct Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation should receive the sum for waging a nearly five-year legal challenge against the Terrorist Surveillance Program.
He also awarded $20,400 each to Wendell Belew and Asim Ghafoor, two of the foundation's Washington lawyers, who also had their phone conversations with the group monitored.

Earlier this year the judge found that investigators illegally intercepted the electronic communications without warrants.

Government lawyers have refused throughout the hearings to disclose whether investigators eavesdropped, 'although the fact of such surveillance is not in doubt,' the judge concluded.

But he refused to award punitive damages, saying that investigators had acted in good faith in following the guidelines of the controversial programme brought in during the George W. Bush administration.

Judge Walker said: 'The record shows that the government had reason to believe that Al-Haramain supported acts of terrorism and that critical intelligence could be obtained by monitoring Al-Haramain.'

The Treasury Department froze the assets of the Ashland chapter and declared it a 'specially designated global terrorist' on September 9, 2004.

Officials believed it had delivered $150,000 overseas to 'support terrorist activities by the Checen mujahideen'.

Pete Seda was convicted in October of tax fraud and conspiracy for helping another official of Al-Haramain smuggled the $150,000 out of the U.S. to Saudi Arabia in 2000. His lawyers are preparing an appeal.

The eavesdropping was initially discovered when Treasury Department officials mistakenly turned over a document to Al-Haramain lawyers that appeared to be a top-secret call log.

Even though they were ordered to return the document and not rely on it in the lawsuit, lawyers were still able to convince judge Walker that they were warrant-less wiretap targets.

Government investigators are required to obtain search warrants signed by judges to eavesdrop on domestic phone calls, emails and other electronic communications.

George W. Bush sanctioned the surveillance programme shortly after 9/11, allowing the National Security Agency to bypass the courts and intercept electronic communications believed to be connected to Al Qaeda.

It was officially ended in January 2007.

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