WASHINGTON – Federal prosecutors agreed Monday to examine whether a College Park man arrested last fall on terrorism charges was tracked by a controversial federal warrantless-wiretap program.
Government lawyers said at the hearing they will investigate whether defendant Ali Asad Chandia was tracked using the National Security Agency’s surveillance program, defense attorney Marvin Miller said. The prosecution also agreed to look into other possible evidence, including interviews with two men held at Guantanamo Bay who reportedly have denied Chandia’s involvement with a terrorist camp.
The discovery of additional information in the case is “potentially” good news for Chandia, Miller said.
“There’s all this stuff swirling around,” Miller said. “The court is aware there are major problems. The government allegations, while most of them are hooey, are important because they test the legality of these wiretaps.”
Lawyers from both sides met with Judge Claude M. Hilton of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia to discuss the emergence of new information in the case.
Prosecutors have evidence Chandia was tracked by at least one wiretap covered by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, which allows for solely domestic wiretaps with a judge’s permission, Miller said. The government is looking into whether Chandia was the subject of other FISA wiretaps, and the results are expected in March.
The NSA program, which began in 2001, but was disclosed late last year, allows the agency to track communications in which one person is outside the United States, as long as a terrorism suspect is involved. The program does not use warrants, drawing the ire of opponents who call it unconstitutional.
The Bush administration maintains the program is within the president’s authority and exempt from FISA, but members of Congress are considering proposing a bill that would force the program to comply with the act.
Prosecutors also agreed to look into exactly when a pair of men requested as witnesses by the defense were at camps run by Lashkar-e-Taiba — also known as the Army of the Righteous — which was designated a terrorist group by the U.S. State Department, Miller said. Both men were subsequently detained at a U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay, but one has been released.
Chandia, 29, who is awaiting trial on charges of providing assistance to Lashkar-e-Taiba, was released on bail Sept. 20. A permanent resident of the United States and a native of Pakistan, he lives with his wife, Patricia, and their two children.
Chandia was the 11th suspect to be arrested as part of the “Virginia Jihad” network. Network members have been convicted of using paintball guns to train for armed combat.
If the government finds Chandia was subject to a warrantless wiretap, Hilton will have to determine the legality of the wiretap program, Miller said. Evidence gathered from illegal wiretaps could not be used in court, Miller said.
Prosecutor David Laufman did not return calls seeking comment.
Miller said Chandia was a prime target for the warrantless-wiretapping program because he regularly called his family in Pakistan.
The case took a turn when prosecutors filed for FISA information in January, Miller said. Miller filed to block the motion, and Hilton postponed the trial until the wiretap inquiries can be sorted out.
Miller said he hasn’t faced anything like the secrecy shrouding the wiretap programs since he began practicing law in 1970.
“They’re still hiding discovery,” said Miller. “This is the least discovery I’ve seen in any criminal case since I’ve been practicing.”
The FBI interviewed the Guantanamo detainees during the time period when Chandia is accused of being at the camps about whether they knew Chandia, Miller said. But both men said they did not recognize a picture of Chandia, Miller added.
Miller also criticized the NSA wiretap program, which he says is aimed at foreign citizens who do not speak English and don’t understand U.S. law.
“It’s clear the Bush administration is doing a power grab,” Miller said. “They asked for these wiretaps, and the Congress said no. All of the statutes are so much crap. (Under FISA) they can listen up to 72 hours if they’ve got an emergency.”
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