SAN FRANCISCO — In a repudiation of the Bush administration’s now-defunct Terrorist Surveillance Program, a federal judge ruled Wednesday that government investigators illegally wiretapped the phone conversations of an Islamic charity and two American lawyers without a search warrant.
U.S. District Court Judge Vaughn Walker said the plaintiffs provided enough evidence to show “they were subjected to warrantless electronic surveillance.”
The judge’s 45-page ruling focused narrowly on Al-Haramain case, touching vaguely on the larger question of the program’s legality.
Nonetheless, Al-Haramain lawyer Jon Eisenberg said the ruling had larger implications.
“By virtue of finding what the Bush administration did to our clients was illegal, he found that the Terrorist Surveillance Program was unlawful,” Eisenberg said.
At issue was a 2006 lawsuit filed by the Ashland, Ore., branch of the Saudi-based Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation and two American lawyers Wendell Belew and Asim Ghafoor.
Belew and Ghafoor claimed their 2004 phone conversations with foundation official Soliman al-Buthi were wiretapped without warrants soon after the Treasury Department had declared the Oregon branch a supporter of terrorism. They argued that wiretaps installed without a judge’s authorization are illegal.
The plaintiffs were seeking $1 million each, plus attorney fees in the case. Walker ordered more legal arguments before deciding on possible damages.
President Bush authorized the surveillance program shortly after 9/11, allowing National Security Agency officials to bypass the courts and intercept electronic communications believed connected to al-Qaida.
Generally, government investigators are required to obtain search warrants signed by judges to eavesdrop on domestic phone calls, e-mail traffic and other electronic communications.