NEW YORK (Reuters) - A federal judge on Monday declined to temporarily block U.S. government agencies from conducting special surveillance on lawyers representing Osama bin Laden’s son-in-law, which those lawyers view as illegal spying.
Even if the agencies monitor the communications of lawyers for Suleiman Abu Ghaith, “there isn’t a shred of evidence” that prosecutors are privy to that information and using it to Abu Ghaith’s disadvantage, U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan in Manhattan said at a hearing.
“There’s just no reason to think that this occurred or that it will occur,” Kaplan said.
Abu Ghaith is one of the highest-ranking al Qaeda figures to face U.S. criminal charges for crimes related to the September 11, 2001 attacks. He has pleaded not guilty to charges of conspiring to kill Americans, and faces a January 2014 trial.
The defendant’s lawyers had sought a temporary restraining order following recent revelations of the U.S. National Security Agency’s mass collection of raw data on email, telephone and internet traffic of U.S. citizens and residents.
Abu Ghaith’s lawyers referenced a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court order revealed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden directing Verizon Communications Inc to produce “telephony metadata.”
But Kaplan said that if this order is genuine, then it appeared it had been “authorized by a duly constituted court.”
Snowden provided documents to the British newspaper The Guardian about Prism, an NSA program tracking phone traffic within the United States and between the United States and foreign countries. He is believed to be in a Moscow airport as he seeks a country to provide him asylum.
“We’re here today because of a whistleblower,” Stanley Cohen, a lawyer for Abu Ghaith, said at the hearing.
Cohen argued that potential witnesses in the case could be scared to cooperate because of the surveillance programs.
But Kaplan said that failed to show that Abu Ghaith’s defense has been irreparably harmed.
“Suppose it is going on, and the prosecution team doesn’t know anything about it, what’s the harm to your client?” Kaplan asked in a sometimes heated debate.
Federal prosecutor John Cronan denied that the case against Abu Ghaith has been tainted by any surveillance program.
“Let me be perfectly clear, the prosecution team had absolutely no exposure” to communications among Abu Ghaith’s lawyers, he said.
Editing by Eric Walsh