Oregon Islamic group sues NSA over surveillance

A lawsuit filed Tuesday asked a federal court to shut down electronic surveillance by the National Security Agency, based on claims the NSA illegally wiretapped conversations between the director of an Islamic charity and two of the charity’s attorneys.

A chapter of the Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation, a defunct Saudi Arabian charity, was established in Ashland in 1997 as a prayer house that also distributed Islamic literature. The chapter was indicted in February 2004 on tax charges alleging it helped launder $150,000 in donations to help al-Qaida fighters in Chechnya in 2000.

The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Portland alleges the NSA illegally wiretapped electronic communications between the chapter and Wendell Belew and Asim Ghafoor, both attorneys in Washington, D.C.

The complaint, which also names President Bush as a defendant, seeks "an order that would require defendants and their agents to halt an illegal and unconstitutional program of electronic surveillance of United States citizens and entities."

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the two Washington attorneys and the Al-Haramain chapter by three Portland civil rights lawyers: Steven Goldberg, Zaha Hassan and Thomas Nelson.

"This case will show how the illegal program was implemented and used to the injury of United States citizens and charities," Nelson said.

But he declined to give details, saying evidence was likely to be sealed by the court.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Portland had not yet seen the lawsuit but likely would be unable to comment, based on national security concerns, said Barry Sheldahl, spokesman for U.S. Attorney Karin Immergut.

The complaint alleges the NSA did not follow procedures required by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or FISA, and failed to obtain a court order authorizing electronic surveillance of the charity and its attorneys.

Dave Fidanque, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union chapter in Oregon, said the complaint is similar to lawsuits the ACLU has filed recently.

"The law couldn’t be clearer on this issue," Fidanque said. "Not only is the NSA’s spying program unauthorized by federal law, but we suspect that conversations of thousands of Americans have been subjected to illegal surveillance by the NSA."

Michael Greenberger, a University of Maryland law professor and director of the Center for Health and Homeland Security, said the key will be the evidence presented in the lawsuit.

"I think the court will be very reluctant to get involved without substantial evidence they (the attorneys) have been wiretapped," Greenberger said.

But if a judge finds the evidence compelling, "they could get their foot in the door," he said.

The lawsuit also names the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control, alleging it relied on information the NSA obtained without a warrant to designate the Al-Haramain chapter in Oregon a "specially designated global terrorist" in September 2004.

The complaint notes that the former parent charity in Saudi Arabia has never been designated a terrorist organization.

Hassan said the case is about "whether we are prepared to accept after 9/11 that the executive branch of our government has unlimited and unchecked power to engage in unlawful activity at the expense of the civil rights of Americans."

"This is simply a case about the rule of law," Hassan said.