An Islamic charity asked a federal judge in San Francisco today to rule that the Bush administration wiretapped its phone calls without a warrant in 2004 and broke a law in doing so.
U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker will hold a hearing Sept. 1 on the motion by the now-defunct Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation of Ashland, Ore., for a summary judgment finding the government liable for illegal wiretapping.
The charity claims that public documents, including a 2007 speech by an FBI deputy director, show that agents eavesdropped on phone calls between two of its lawyers and a foundation official in Saudi Arabia in 2004 without obtaining court approval.
The group contends the alleged wiretapping violated the federal Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, known as FISA, and that President Bush didn’t have the power to bypass that law.
Foundation lawyers wrote that the congressional law “cannot be trumped by a presidential power grab wholly at odds with the constitutional separation of powers.”
Their brief quotes a statement in which President Obama said in 2007, before being elected, “Warrantless surveillance of American citizens, in defiance of FISA, is unlawful and unconstitutional.”
Jon Eisenberg, an Oakland lawyer representing the group, said, “The purpose of the case is to vindicate the principle that even the president is not above the law.”
Eisenberg said that if the group wins a summary judgment, a short trial would be held to determine the amount of financial compensation it should receive.
The Justice Department’s response to the motion is due next month.
The department under both the Bush and Obama administrations has sought to have the case dismissed on the ground that allowing it to proceed would endanger national security secrets.
The lawsuit is one of more than three dozen filed by individuals and groups around the country to challenge alleged warrantless wiretapping. The cases were transferred to Walker’s court for purposes of judicial efficiency.
Most of the other lawsuits were filed against telecommunications companies rather than the government. Last month, Walker dismissed those cases, saying that a 2008 FISA amendment shielded the companies from being sued for alleged surveillance aid to the government.
The plaintiffs in those lawsuits are appealing that ruling.