Ashland, OR unlikely site for terror investigation

Ashland, Oregon, the small-town home of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and Southern Oregon University, would seem to be an unlikely site of a global war on terrorism (GWOT) investigation. But that is exactly the situation for Soliman Hamd Al-Buthe, a former member of Saudi Arabia’s national basketball team and a government official in the city of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

Al-Bluthe’s saga began in March 2004 when he received an urgent phone call from two lawyers in Washington D.C. http://www.salon.com/news/feature/2008/05/19/al_haramain/index.html

Most of the call concerned a growing confrontation between the U.S. government and the Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation in Ashland, Ore., the U.S. branch of a global Saudi Arabian charity organization under investigation for possible links to terrorism. Al-Buthe had been an advisor to Al-Haramain from 1995 to 2002 and was a member of the Oregon foundation’s board of directors. Just weeks prior to the call, the foundation — a respected fixture in the Ashland community run for years by an Iranian-American Muslim named Pete Seda — had been raided by U.S. law enforcement agents.

What Al-Bluthe did not know at the time was that the call was wiretapped by the U.S. government.

Unknown to its three participants, the conversation, and at least one other between them in April 2004, was monitored by officials from the National Security Agency at the behest of senior Bush administration officials. The surveillance that day — apparently conducted without a warrant and later exposed when the government accidentally released a highly classified document to Al-Haramain’s attorneys — would become a key piece in the sprawling debate over extrajudicial spying inside the United States after 9/11. The surveillance would also have profound consequences for Al-Buthe — who is considered a terrorist supporter by the Bush administration — and others connected with the Al-Haramain Foundation in Oregon.

Most Americans do not understand how this warrantless wiretapping can entangle those participating in an otherwise innocent phone call and lead to being labeled as a potential terrorist. This case of Al-Bluthe and the Islamic charity in Ashland, Oregon, has not been adequately covered by the U.S. media. If it had been, more Americans would understand that

The Bush administration has used expanded national security powers to undermine the legal rights of people in the United States who are identified as al-Qaida supporters, but who are not charged with terrorist-related crimes. The U.S. Treasury Department and other agencies investigating domestic organizations and U.S. persons rely on the NSA to spy and collect evidence for them — a fundamental shift from the past, when the NSA’s vast eavesdropping powers were used only for foreign intelligence gathering. And in the name of protecting national security, the Bush administration has regularly withheld what it claims is key evidence against those accused — insisting, essentially, that the public accept without question its private conclusions about the suspects’ guilt.

So the operative word is “Trust us” — we know what we are doing. These same folks who mis-managed the Katrina disaster, the American economy and everything else they’ve touched, including the Iraq war, should be trusted to manage anything competently? I don’t think so.

The Al-Haramain story, based on a two-month Salon investigation that included a series of interviews in Riyadh, Washington, D.C., and Oregon, sheds light on the consequences of these Bush policies. Ultimately it is a story of real people in real communities caught up in the global maelstrom unleashed by Islamic militancy, the horror of the 9/11 attacks and America’s powerful — and at times crude and undemocratic — counterattack against an elusive enemy.

Six months after the NSA surveillance of Al-Buthe’s call, based in part on information gleaned from it, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control branded Al-Buthe and another Saudi director of the Oregon foundation as “specially designated global terrorists.” The foundation, its assets now frozen, was shut down, and Al-Buthe, Pete Seda and others were thrown into deep legal and financial jeopardy. Soon, some people in the Ashland community started looking at each other with worry and distrust — were terrorist operatives living in their midst?

All we have to go on are the vague reassurances of the Bush administration but no evidence to be shared even with the attorneys representing the defendants.

Bush officials maintain they know of direct links between the Oregon branch of Al-Haramain and Osama bin Laden’s terrorist organization, but have handled the case in deep secrecy. In February of this year, in response to a lawsuit filed in 2007 by Al-Haramain’s attorneys challenging the terrorist designation, the Treasury Department finally announced charges, alleging that the foundation had provided “financial, material, and other services and support to Al Qaeda.” If the government had it right, a respected Islamic center that attracted an eclectic mix of hippies, rednecks, and African and Middle Eastern immigrants to the bucolic community of Ashland had been deeply connected to a web of terrorist groups reaching from Pakistan to North America.

Attorneys for the Al-Bluthe and the other defendants strongly deny all charges.

Lynne Bernabei, Al-Haramain’s lead attorney in Washington, contends that the terrorist designation was based on the government’s “misinterpretation” of what it heard in the warrantless surveillance, and on information compiled from dubious public sources or selectively culled in the government’s favor. “All they gave us was junk and smoke and mirrors,” Bernabei says of the documentation the Treasury Department used to buttress its case. The Bush administration, meanwhile, has refused to make any of the classified evidence it claims to have about Al-Haramain, or even summaries of it, available to the accused and their attorneys. And until Bernabei and her colleagues filed the lawsuit in 2007, she says, the Treasury Department never informed the organization about any specific reasons for its terrorist designation, or the provisions of U.S. law or presidential executive orders it may have violated.

In addition, there has been no evidentiary hearing where the Oregon foundation could have been presented with the evidence that led to the 2004 raid, the freezing of its assets, and its designation as a supporter of terrorism.

What happened to due process? What happened to the U.S. Constitution about protections from unreasonable search and seizure?

For four years, the Treasury Department, by freezing the charity’s assets, blocked it from using its own funds to pay for its legal defense.

“You can be designated without an evidentiary finding that you ever actively engaged in or supported terrorism,” says David Cole, a professor of constitutional law at Georgetown University, who has been working with Bernabei and other lawyers on the Al-Haramain Foundation’s cas. “This is a guilt-by-association process.”

We had enough guilt by association witch hunts during the McCarthy era in the ’50’s. We don’t need to relive that dark period in American history. We must not surrender our civil liberties in an effort to protect ourselves from the global war on terror (GWOT). As Benjamin Franklin famously said:

“Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both”

As Benjam

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