Lawyers lose effort to force US to reveal who was targeted by anti-terrorism program

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Court rules US can keep secrets in surveillance

NEW YORK — A federal appeals court ruled Wednesday that law professors and attorneys who represent Guantanamo Bay detainees cannot force the government to reveal whether an anti-terrorism program eavesdropped on their conversations.

The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling supported the findings of a lower court judge in Manhattan who also rejected the attempt to uncloak the warrantless electronic surveillance system’s targets.

The National Security Agency and the Department of Justice had refused to comply with a 2006 Freedom of Information Act request by the lawsuit’s plaintiffs.

The government had refused to confirm or deny the existence of any records obtained under the Terrorist Surveillance Program, authorized by President George W. Bush after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Bush had described the highly classified program as crucial to national security, saying it was designed to intercept the international communications of people with known links to al-Qaida and related terrorist organizations.

The appeals court said it did not consider whether the program was constitutional, only whether it was right for the government to withhold facts about who was targeted.

“The fact that the public is aware of the program’s existence does not mean that the public is entitled to have information regarding the operation of the program, its targets, the information it has yielded or other highly sensitive national security information that the government has continued to classify,” the appeals court wrote.

“Indeed, the fact that the TSP’s existence has been made public reinforces the government’s continuing stance that it is necessary to keep confidential the details of the program’s operations and scope,” the three-judge panel added.

The appeals court said the government had sufficiently established “that nondisclosure is appropriate — perhaps essential — for reasons of national security and confidentiality.”

The 2nd Circuit said its findings were consistent with rulings on the matter by other federal courts.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs did not immediately return phone calls for comment Wednesday.

Lawyers representing Guantanamo detainees had argued in the lawsuit that they would have to conduct conversations with their clients differently if the government was eavesdropping on their talks.

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