In a high-profile affirmation of the government’s powerful new counter-terrorism laws, a federal appeals court ruled Tuesday that authorities can freeze the assets of a U.S.-based global Islamic charity that it believes is linked to terrorism without providing its evidence to defense lawyers.
Justice Department officials and a lawyer for the charity described the ruling as a precedent-setting case that upholds some aspects of the USA Patriot Act and other counter-terrorism measures implemented after the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
“This is a very significant victory for the administration, [and] not just with regard to organizations accused of having terrorist ties,” said Jonathan Turley, a constitutional law expert at George Washington University Law School who has defended many cases involving issues of national security.
Specifically, the three-judge panel of the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, based in Chicago, sided with a lower court in finding that the government had the right to freeze the assets of the Global Relief Foundation in 2001 because of allegations that it was tied to terrorism -- and to do so without presenting its evidence in a public forum.
“The statute is designed to give the president means to control assets that could be used by enemy aliens,” the circuit court panel ruled.
Turley said that before the terrorist attacks, defense lawyers in cases involving national security were given either special clearance to review classified information or specially edited versions of such documents.
But “since Sept. 11, the government has said it would share nothing with defense lawyers,” he said. “This is a problem that has become evident in a variety of areas -- the freezing of terrorist assets, the [Zacarias] Moussaoui case, the Guantanamo detainee cases. In all of those areas, the administration has balked at sharing information.”
Ironically, he noted, the ruling could undermine the government’s argument that it needs military tribunals to try terrorism suspects because federal courts insist that defense lawyers be provided with evidence involving national security issues.
Previously, several lower courts had viewed the government’s refusal to share such information “with considerable skepticism,” Turley said. That makes this ruling extremely significant, he added, especially since the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals is a well-respected middle ground between the conservative 4th Circuit in Virginia and the liberal 9th Circuit in California.
“The court’s decision has laid the solid legal groundwork in support of the final designation of Global Relief Foundation as a terrorist organization,” said Justice Department spokesman Charles Miller.
Roger Simmons, a lawyer for Global Relief, said the ruling was a continuation of unfair U.S. actions against the group that have effectively shut down one of the largest Islamic charities in the world since the Treasury Department first linked it to terrorism more than a year ago.
Simmons vowed to bring the case before the entire 7th Circuit court to gain a reversal and force the government to release Global Relief accounts that have been frozen, and to allow other government and business entities to do business with Global Relief.
“If I can’t get a reversal there, I’m going to the Supreme Court,” Simmons said. “What’s bad about this [ruling] is that the key issue in the case is the question of whether we supported terrorism and that the government can rely upon secret evidence to make its case. How do you go about proving your innocence when the government can rely on secret evidence that you can’t even see?”
The appellate court did, however, say that Global Relief had a right to contest the specific allegations leveled against it and ordered a hearing on the issue at a lower court level.
“We have nothing to say here about whether GRF supports terrorism (as Treasury has concluded) or instead provides humanitarian relief (as it describes itself),” the court said.
In other developments, the FBI downplayed reports of a pending terrorist attack in New York City and President Bush called upon the public to help track down five men who were believed to have entered the United States illegally last week, saying U.S. authorities were taking every possible terrorist threat seriously.
The FBI is hunting the five men as part of a broader terrorism investigation into human trafficking, and released their pictures and suspected identities on its Web site, www.fbi.gov, on Sunday.
It said the men may have entered the country illegally around Christmas.
Bush said he was the one who made the decision to issue an all-points bulletin for the men and to go public with their photos and suspected identities.
“We need to know why they have been smuggled into the country, what they’re doing in the country,” Bush told reporters at his ranch near Crawford, Texas. “And if anybody has any information about the five, I would hope they would contact their local authorities.”
For Global Relief, the appellate court ruling was the latest in a series of legal setbacks that began in late 2001 with its designation as an entity believed to be financing global terrorism.
On Dec. 14 of that year, FBI agents raided Global Relief’s headquarters in Bridgeview, Ill., and Treasury Department officials froze the group’s bank accounts.
They cited the Patriot Act and related measures enacted by Congress as giving Bush the authority to freeze assets of organizations in which there is a foreign interest, pending an investigation. The counter-terrorism measures also allowed for the use of classified information in freezing assets.
In Global Relief’s case, Treasury officials alleged that the organization has links to Osama bin Laden and has used some of its charitable donations to support his Al Qaeda terrorist network.
Government lawyers have for months defended their use of secret evidence against Global Relief and other entities accused of helping finance terrorism, arguing that laying out its case could cause “grave damage to the national security.”
Arguing the case before the appellate court in October, Justice Department attorney Douglas Letter said that although secret evidence is normally “something to be avoided,” federal law allows it in exceptional cases.
“The ongoing efforts to identify foreign terrorists and their supporters depends in part on the use of intelligence that, if disclosed, could cause grave damage to the national security of the United States,” the government argued in court papers.
Simmons told the three-member panel that such tactics left him “working in the dark” and were unconstitutional. He argued that Global Relief has not been charged with any crime and that its leaders have never been accused of violence or supporting terrorism of any kind.
“If there is such evidence,” he said, “it’s evidence I’ve never seen.”