Paper Said to Show NSA Spying Given to Post Reporter in 2004
Friday, March 3, 2006
A classified document that an Islamic charity says is evidence of illegal government eavesdropping on its phone calls and e-mails was provided in 2004 to a Washington Post reporter, who returned it when the FBI demanded it back a few months later.
According to a source familiar with the case, the document indicated that the National Security Agency intercepted telephone conversations in the spring of 2004 between a director of the al-Haramain Islamic Foundation and lawyers for the foundation in the District.
Al-Haramain, a Saudi group that once operated in Oregon, sued the Bush administration in federal court this week, alleging it was a victim of President Bush's secret domestic eavesdropping program. Its lawyers asked a judge to privately review the classified material, which the organization contends would help prove its claim.
Treasury Department officials inadvertently provided the classified document, which was marked "top secret" and dated May 24, 2004, to al-Haramain lawyers that same month, according to FBI correspondence with The Post. Treasury was investigating the foundation for possible links to terrorists and soon designated the group a terrorist organization.
At the same time, an attorney for al-Haramain, Wendell Belew, provided a copy of the document to Post reporter David B. Ottaway. Ottaway was researching Islamic groups and individuals who had been designated terrorists by the U.S. government and were attempting to prove their innocence.
In November 2004, FBI agents approached Belew, and soon thereafter Ottaway, saying that the government had mistakenly released the document. They demanded all copies back and warned that anyone who revealed its contents could be prosecuted.
Ottaway declined to discuss the contents of the document other than to confirm it appeared to be a summary of one or more conversations intercepted by the government.
"The FBI said that . . . it contained highly sensitive national security information," Ottaway said yesterday in a statement. "I returned it after consulting with Washington Post editors and lawyers, and concluding that it was not relevant to what I was working on at the time."
Leonard Downie Jr., executive editor of The Post, also declined to discuss the document but said it did not directly aid Ottaway's reporting.
"At the time we had this document, it was before we had any knowledge of the eavesdropping program. Without that knowledge, the document provided no useful information," Downie said. "At the time, all we knew was that this document was not relevant to David's reporting."
Tom Nelson, an attorney for al-Haramain who filed the suit, declined to comment yesterday on whether the document Ottaway reviewed was the same as the classified material he hopes to present to the judge as part of al-Haramain's lawsuit.
The suit contends that the government's interception of conversations between al-Haramain officer Suliman al-Buthe in Saudi Arabia and lawyers Belew and Asim Ghafoor in Washington violated the Fourth Amendment, attorney-client privilege and the federal law that requires a court warrant to tap certain domestic phone conversations.
Researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.