Once again San Francisco Chronicle Staff Writer Bob Egelko has been following the activities of Chief U. S. District Judge Vaughan Walker, and once again those activities carry a ring of chutzpah with the most positive connotations. So, while Walker may have had to wait longer than he deserved for his first Chutzpah of the Week award, I want to make sure that he receives this week's award "with all deliberate speed!" This week's award should be especially dear to the hearts of those who refuse to accept Barack Obama's precept that, where past abuses of the Bush Administration are concerned, our country would be better served by letting bygones be bygones.
Here is Egelko's account of the grounds for Walker's award:
The Bush administration wiretapped a U.S.-based Islamic charity under an illegal surveillance program that was not authorized by Congress or the courts, a federal judge in San Francisco ruled today.
The ruling by Chief U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker marked the first time that a court has found that the government illegally wiretapped an individual or organization since President George W. Bush authorized warrantless wiretapping of suspected foreign terrorists in 2001.
The government inadvertently sent a classified document in 2004 to the Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation, reportedly showing that two of its lawyers had been wiretapped. Several months after the surveillance began, the government classified Al-Haramain as a terrorist organization, a description its leaders called false.
The now-defunct charity, which was headquartered in Oregon, returned the document at the government's request and could not use it as evidence in a lawsuit it filed over the wiretapping. But Walker said today that Al-Haramain had established, through public statements by officials and nonclassified evidence, that the government had intercepted its calls without obtaining the court warrant required by a 1978 law.
Bush acknowledged in December 2005 that he had ordered the National Security Agency, after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to intercept phone calls and e-mails between Americans and suspected foreign terrorists without a warrant. He claimed the power to override the 1978 law's requirement of advance court approval for all such surveillance.
Today, Walker said Bush had lacked that authority.
Under the argument advanced by the Bush administration, "executive branch officials may treat as optional ... a statute (the 1978 law) enacted specifically to rein in and create a judicial check for executive-branch abuses of surveillance authority," the judge said.
That "theory of unfettered executive-branch discretion" holds an "obvious potential for governmental abuse and overreaching," Walker said.
This is what many of us have desired for some time, a precedent-setting judicial ruling of the wiretapping abuses of the Bush Administration delivered at the Federal level. As to the reaction within the Obama Administration, Egelko reported the following:
The Justice Department declined to say whether it would appeal today's ruling and instead issued a statement focusing on Attorney General Eric Holder's recent restrictions on government claims of secrecy. The new rules require a high-level Justice Department committee to review all such claims, with the attorney general having the last word.
The new policy strikes "an appropriate balance between rebuilding the public's trust in the government's use of this (secrecy) privilege while recognizing the imperative need to protect national security," the department said.
It is unclear what this review will determine, but Walker has taken the matter far enough to definitely deserve the Chutzpah of the Week award for this week!