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Court reverses key ruling on secret-court records

June 16, 2014

CHICAGO (AP) — Attorneys for a 20-year-old accused of trying to ignite a bomb in downtown Chicago won’t be granted what would have been unprecedented access to secret intelligence-court records, the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Monday, reversing a trial court and handing a major victory to the government.

A three-judge panel issued its opinion just days after oral arguments in a terrorism case that touched on issues raised by Edward Snowden. Revelations by the former government contractor about expanded U.S. phone and Internet spying and how the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, or FISA court, secretly signed off on them raised a furor over the practices.

In its Monday opinion, the appellate court agreed with prosecutors, who argued that letting Adel Daoud’s lawyers see the FISA court records — submitted as part of a warrant application — would endanger national security.

“Our own study of the classified material has convinced us that there are indeed compelling reasons of national security for (the records) being classified,” Judge Richard Posner wrote in the court’s opinion. The court was submitting a sealed, classified opinion along with the public one to explain further, he added.

Daoud, a U.S citizen, has denied allegations he accepted a phony car bomb from undercover FBI agents, parked it by a Chicago bar and pressed a trigger. His trial is scheduled to start Nov. 10.

Defense attorney Thomas Durkin has said Daoud was working on a term paper about Osama bin Laden around 2012. The FISA records he wants to see, he’s said, could shed light on whether investigators flagged Daoud because of Internet searches regarding bin Laden.

But the risk, Posner wrote, wasn’t so much that Daoud’s attorneys could disclose national secrets contained in the FISA records intentionally.

“Though it is certainly highly unlikely that Daoud’s lawyers would, Snowden-like, publicize classified information in violation of federal law, they might in their zeal to defend their client ... or misremembering what is classified and what not, inadvertently say things that would provide clues to classified material,” he said.

Since Congress created the FISA court in 1978, no defense attorneys had been told they could go through a FISA application — until Judge Sharon Johnson Coleman’s January 29 ruling in Daoud’s case.

Among Judge Coleman’s errors, Posner wrote, was her finding that allowing defense attorneys access to the FISA documents would help her thrash out what secret-court material was and wasn’t relevant to the case.

“The judge appears to have believed that adversary procedure is always essential to resolve contested issues, of fact,” he wrote. “Not only is federal judicial procedure not always adversarial — it is not always fully open.”

As an example, he noted that companies’ trade secrets are frequently concealed in judicial proceedings.

Later on Monday, Durkin said he strongly disagreed.

“The adversary system is the foundation of civil liberties in this country and this opinion drives another significant wedge into that time-honored process....” he said.

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