A federal appeals court ruled Tuesday that the government is immune to wireless wiretapping lawsuits in a decision that the plaintiff’s attorney says releases Washington and the White House from ever being held accountable for spying on citizens.
A three-judge panel serving the US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in California canceled an attempt from the attorney representing the now-defunct al-Haramain Islamic Foundation to hold the federal government accountable for wiretapping his clients without a warrant, despite previously winning a federal case on the argument that the interception of phone records occurred illegally.
A San Francisco federal judge ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in 2010 after attorney’s for the Islamic Foundation successfully took on the government for spying on his client under the Bush administration’s so-called Terrorist Surveillance Program. At the time the judge ruled that the government owed the plaintiffs $40,800 in damages and attorneys $2.5 million in legal fees but attempts to collect those funds have been unsuccessful ever since. On Tuesday, the appeals court said the government has legal immunity from the lawsuit and determined that the previous decisions should be overruled.
“This case effectively brings to an end the plaintiffs’ ongoing attempts to hold the executive branch responsible for intercepting telephone conversations without judicial authorization,” the appeals court writes.
“Under this scheme, Al-Haramain can bring a suit for damages against the United States for use of the collected information, but cannot bring suit against the government for collection of the information itself,” Judge M. Margaret McKeown writes for the unanimous majority. “Although such a structure may seem anomalous and even unfair, the policy judgment is one for Congress, not the courts.”
Although the panel appeared to agree with the plaintiffs, even writing that the latest update “does not in any way call into question the integrity with which they pursued” their lawsuit, they nonetheless reversed a decision that al-Haramain’s lawyer says sets a dangerous precedent for everyone else in America.
“If this is the last word on warrantless wiretapping then it means that there will have been no accountability for it,” the lawyer responds, according to the Associated Press.
“There is no accountability,” attorney Jon Eisenberg tells the Los Angeles Times. “That is what is so distressful about this decision. It means that President Bush got away with it, and it means that President Obama will be able to get away with it and every president after him.”
The extent of government wiretapping “is a government secret, and the courts aren’t going to have anything to do with revealing those secrets,” Eisenberg adds.