The top secret wiretapping snafu

What would you do if a Federal Agency whos Mission Statement begins “To enforce the law and defend the interests of the United States according to the law” was blantantly breaking the law invading your privacy? How would you feel if you received a document marked “top secret” that contained a detailed list of some of your private phone calls?

A very disturbing report from Wired.com (Wired Magazine) details how The nation’s highest law enforcement agency accidently gave a copy of a top secret document detailing private phone calls to a Washington D.C. attorney. Two months later the FBI showed up, demanded the documents back and ordered him to forget he ever saw it. Simply freaking amazing.

In August 2004, Washington D.C. attorney Wendell Belew received that document. He and his colleague, a fellow attorney, are suing the government for $1 million each. Recently, an Appeals court dismissed one of over 50 lawsuits against the National Security Administration (NSA) based on narrow procedural grounds, not the legality of the program.

Belew was one of many lawyers representing the U.S. branch of the prominent Saudi Arabian charity Al-Haramain, formerly one of the largest charities in Saudi Arabia. Federal officials were investigating the Ashland Oregon branch of the group for alleged links to terrorism and had already frozen U.S. assets of the charity. The group of lawyers was trying to keep the charity off a U.S. Treasury Department watch list.

Lynne Bernabei, one of the attorneys working with Belew, noticed that one of the documents from the Treasury was marked “top secret.” Bernabei gave copies of the document, which was a log of telephone conversations between Belew and co-counsel Asim Ghafoor held with a Saudi-based director for the charity, to Belew and other attorneys and directors at Al-Haramain’s Saudi Arabia headquarters. Belew also gave a copy of the document to Washington Post reporter David Ottaway.

Despite claims of innocence, the Al-Haramain’s American branch was added to the government’s public list of terrorists. What’s not known is when officials realized they’d “accidently” given the document to the attorneys in September 2004. In October the FBI showed up at Belew’s office demanding the document back, and advised him not to attempt to remember the document’s contents. Ottaway did not report on the document at the time and handed the copy over to the FBI. Since then, the document has resurfaced.

The Bush Administration has acknowledged the warrantless surveillance, alleging they don’t have to reveal if any individual was or was not wiretapped because of “state secrets privilege” that permits them to withhold information that would endanger national security. Over 50 lawsuits are pending against the NSA and various telecom companies (BellSouth, Verizon and Sprint to name a few) who are allegedly cooperating with the government.

How long this wiretapping has gone on is not yet known. Whether or not the President has the “right” to change the laws as he sees fit remains to be seen. It will undoubtedly eventually end up in the Supreme Court (which coincidentally has two new appointees by the Bush Administration). Will citizens’ constitutional rights continue to be violated in the name of politics and/or terrorism? That remains to be seen, but it’s time for politics to stay in the political arena, and it’s time for the law to protect citizens the way it was written and intended. Check out the article and see what you think.

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