Court Says President Bush Violated Wiretapping Laws With Warrantless Wiretap

In a huge ruling, a court has said that the US government violated wiretapping laws in eavesdropping on phone calls without a warrant.

If you haven’t been following the fight over the legality of warrantless wiretapping, this case, involving lawyers working with the Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation, is extremely important. When it was revealed that the Bush administration was wiretapping phonecalls without a warrant, lawsuits were filed — but the “problem” was that the parties (such as the ACLU) that filed the lawsuits didn’t have “standing” because they had no evidence that they, personally, were impacted by the warrantless wiretapping. This created a ridiculous Catch-22 situation. As long as the government hid its illegal activities and never said who it spied on, it could spy on anyone illegally. No one could bring a lawsuit, since there was no proof that they had been impacted by the illegal spying.

Then the feds screwed up. They accidentally sent the evidence of wiretapping some lawyers for the Al-Haramain group to those lawyers. Suddenly there was evidence. But, of course, the government tried to cover it up. For a while it claimed that even though it had revealed that it had illegally spied on these lawyers, and everyone knew it, since those documents were classified, everyone had to pretend that it was still a secret and no one knew about it. This resulted in a series of positively ridiculous hoops that lawyers had to jump through to bring the case, without actually using the document.

Thankfully, even as the Obama administration continued to support the Bush’s administration’s position that this lawsuit should not move forward, the courts disagreed and allowed the case to move forward although the document in question wasn’t allowed to be used.

However, the judge, who was clearly annoyed by the administration’s stalling tactics, said that even without the document, there was enough evidence that the federal government violated wiretapping laws:

“Plaintiffs must, and have, put forward enough evidence to establish a prima facie case that they were subjected to warrantless electronic surveillance,” U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker ruled, in a landmark decision. Even without the classified document, the judge said he believed the lawyers “were subjected to unlawful electronic surveillance” (.pdf) in violation of the Foreign Terror Surveillance Act, which requires warrants in terror investigations.

Beyond that, the judge called the administration’s method of dealing with the case as “argumentative acrobatics,” and even suggested that those suing could ask for monetary damages.

This is a huge victory against illegal government surveillance. There is simply no excuse for the government to violate its own laws, especially when it comes to infringing on the privacy rights of American citizens. There is a well-established process for obtaining legal wiretap warrants. There is no excuse for going around that process, other than that the government knows it’s doing something wrong. Thankfully, the judge recognized that in this case.

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