Justice employees must reveal knowledge of eavesdropping involving 9/11 detainees

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NEW YORK (AP) – Department of Justice employees involved in a lawsuit filed on behalf of Sept. 11 detainees must disclose whether they know of any government monitoring of conversations between the detainees and their attorneys, a judge ruled Tuesday.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Steven Gold issued the ruling in response to a motion by the Center for Constitutional Rights, a human rights group representing the detainees. The motion was filed after a secret government program that allowed investigators to eavesdrop on international communications between Americans and people suspected of terrorist ties was made public in December.

The class action lawsuit was filed in federal court in Brooklyn in 2002 on behalf of hundreds of Arab and Muslim men who were detained in the United States in the government’s investigation into the 2001 terror attacks and deported.

The center had asked the judge to order the government to disclose “whether any telephone, e-mail or other communication between any plaintiff and his counsel was monitored or intercepted since the plaintiff’s removal from the United States.”

The Department of Justice said that its lawyers and support staff hadn’t received any attorney-client communications and that such conversations wouldn’t be used in its defense.

But the government would not confirm or deny whether employees or potential witnesses knew of any monitoring, saying that such a disclosure could reveal classified information. It said it would allow witnesses to pick one of a series of statements about what they knew but reserved the right to call witnesses who refused to sign any statement.

On Tuesday, the judge rejected the government’s arguments, saying the effort to learn whether the detainees’ conversations with their lawyers were monitored “is not a mere fishing expedition based on unfounded speculation.”

He ordered the government to comply with his ruling within three weeks and indicate whether any lawyers, staffers or possible witnesses know about monitored attorney-client conversations.

The Center for Constitutional Rights applauded the ruling.

“Now they have to step forward and answer some tough questions,” the center’s legal director, Bill Goodman, said of the government employees.

The center said it would seek testimony from former Attorney General John Ashcroft and FBI Director Robert Mueller, both named in the suit.

Telephone messages left for lawyers representing the government in the case were not immediately returned Tuesday night. A woman who answered the telephone at an after-hours number for the Department of Justice said she could not contact a spokesperson after 9 p.m.

The judge said his order applied only to people involved in the pending lawsuit, which alleges that detainees were jailed on the basis of their race or religion and physically abused at a federal lockup in Brooklyn.

The lawsuit seeks restitution for the plaintiffs, who claim they were held for months without evidence linking them to terrorism, and an order saying the government can’t resort to “preventive detention.”

The government has denied any wrongdoing.

AP-ES-05-30-06 2313EDT

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