By: Harry Waisbren
Big news on the FISA front and to civil libertarians at large, as District Court Judge Vaughn Walker concludes that not only was the NSA wiretapping program illegal, but that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) “should be given more weight than the state secrets privilege.”
Walker ruled that government investigators illegally wiretapped phone conversations from the Islamic charity, the Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation, and two American lawyers. Marcy Wheeler explains:
Walker is basically saying, “Well, government, if you won’t give us any evidence to prove you legally wiretapped al-Haramain, and given all the evidence they’ve presented proving they were wiretapped, then they win!”
Marcy provides further analysis explaining why the Department of Justice is likely to accept Walker’s ruling, extrapolating on why she thinks he “crafted his ruling to give the government a big incentive not to appeal the case.”
If this ruling stands, al-Haramain will get a ruling that the wiretapping was illegal. The government will be directed to purge any records it collected from its databases (I’ll explain in a later post why I think this will present some problems). And it’ll be asked to pay a fine, plus legal fees. But the fines, at least ($100 per day per day of illegal wiretapping) might end up being a relative pittance–tens of thousand or hundreds of thousand of dollars. Sure, there will be punitive fines and legal fees for four years of litigation. But the government was happy to settle Hatfill and Horn for millions, why not have this be done for the same range of millions?
What al-Haramain won’t get–unless it litigates some of the other issues in the case, which likely canbe dismissed with State Secrets–is access to what the government was doing. Or details of how it came to be wiretapped illegally.
I’m betting that the government will be willing to accept the ruling that it illegally wiretapped al-Haramain in exchange for the ability to leave details of how and what it did secret, leaving the claim of State Secrets largely intact.
Hmmm, doesn’t seem like precisely the sort of accountability-inducing victory that true civil libertarians from across the political spectrum are hoping for. Then again, it certainly does seem like a positive step on the whole, and we have had far too few of those lately!
For more analysis, you can check the clip of Keith Olbermann interviewing James Risen of the New York Times about this below: