U.S. Ordered to Pay Group of Muslims
By ERIC LICHTBLAU
WASHINGTON — A federal judge ordered the government on Tuesday to pay nearly $2.6 million in lawyers’ fees and damages to officials with a shuttered Islamic charity in Oregon who the judge said were wiretapped without a court order under the surveillance program approved by President George W. Bush after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
The ruling by Vaughn R. Walker, the chief federal judge in San Francisco, punctuates a years-long lawsuit that tested the balance between civil liberties and the president’s authority.
The Justice Department did not immediately say whether it would appeal the ruling.
The dollar amount of damages is relatively insignificant for the government. But the principle the judge first laid out in a March ruling and expanded on Tuesday was critical to all parties.
For charity officials and their lawyers, the ruling offered vindication in a case that the Justice Department fought largely by relying on the president’s executive power and the government’s claim to keep certain “state secrets” out of the judiciary.
“We brought this case to try and get a declaration from the judiciary that the executive branch is bound by the law,” said Jon Eisenberg, a lawyer who represented the charity, the Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation.
The judge awarded more than $2.5 million in legal expenses accrued by lawyers for Asim Ghafoor and Wendell Belew, officials with Al-Haramain’s Oregon affiliate who the judge said were wiretapped, and he awarded the two officials each $20,400 in damages.
Judge Walker refused to grant punitive damages based on the claim that the wiretapping under the National Security Agency program showed “reckless or callous indifference” to the plaintiffs’ rights. Judge Walker said that the government “had reason to believe” that Al-Haramain supported acts of terrorism.
However, he criticized the way that Bush officials went about approving in secret a wiretapping program that operated outside the bounds of judicial scrutiny and in conflict with surveillance rules set by Congress. (from the New York Times website)
As the article points out, the victory is not in the amount of the ruling. Rather the ruling testifies to the Bush Administration’s lack of respect for US law.
This case involved one charity, but wiretapping use was widespread. Still this victory will only have meaning if the US abandons not only specific outlawed practice(s) but also the hubris and outlaw-mentality that condoned these injustices in the first place.