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Court overturns wiretap ruling against feds

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — A federal appeals court on Tuesday overturned an order the federal government pay the attorney fees of an Islamic group that claimed it was the target of the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretap program.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled a lower court judge was wrong to award $40,800 in damages and $2.5 million to attorneys for the Ashland, Ore., chapter of the now-defunct Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation. The foundation waged a nearly five-year legal challenge to the Bush administration’s so-called Terrorist Surveillance Program.

The appeals court ruled the federal government is immune to such claims.

A sympathetic three-court panel said the chapter’s lawyers, despite the U.S. Department of Justice’s assertions otherwise, filed a legitimate lawsuit and pursued it fairly and above board.

“This case effectively brings to an end the plaintiffs’ ongoing attempts to hold the executive branch responsible for intercepting telephone conversations without judicial authorization” Judge M. Margaret McKeown wrote for the unanimous panel. “However, we cannot let that occur without comment on the government’s recent, unfortunate argument that the plaintiffs have somehow engaged in ‘game-playing.’”

McKeown noted the lawsuit raised important questions about balancing national security interests with civil liberties after the Sept. 11 attacks. She scolded the government for suggesting the plaintiffs’ lawyers were interested in something else.

“In light of the complex, ever-evolving nature of this litigation, and considering the significant infringement on individual liberties that would occur if the Executive Branch were to disregard congressionally mandated procedures for obtaining judicial authorization of international wiretaps, the charge of ‘game-playing’ lobbed by the government is as careless as it is inaccurate,” McKeown wrote. “That their suit has ultimately failed does not in any way call into question the integrity with which they pursued it.”

Al-Haramain’s lawyer said the judges’ kind words were “small consolation” and that he and his colleagues were discussing their next steps. They could ask the appeals court to reconsider the case or ask the U.S. Supreme Court to take it up.

“If this is the last word on warrantless wiretapping then it means that there will have been no accountability for it,” he said.

The Treasury Department froze the assets of the Ashland chapter and declared it a “specially designated global terrorist” on Sept. 9, 2004. Treasury officials believe the Ashland chapter delivered $150,000 overseas to support terrorist activities by the Chechen mujahedeen.

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