January 23, 2015 / 8:40 PM / 4 years ago

U.S. judge hears challenge to warrantless wiretapping program

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A U.S. judge on Friday heard a rare constitutional challenge to the government’s warrantless wiretapping program in a case involving an Albanian man who pleaded guilty to a federal terrorism charge.

U.S. District Judge John Gleeson in Brooklyn is reviewing the government’s warrantless monitoring of Agron Hasbajrami, a U.S. permanent resident. The surveillance was authorized under a 2008 law that allows U.S. agencies to collect millions of communications between Americans and foreign citizens abroad who are intelligence targets.

Lawyers for Hasbajrami, as well as the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which filed briefs in support of his argument, told Gleeson the government should be forced to obtain warrants to inspect any communications from Americans swept up as part of the program.

“What this statute does is to give the government nearly unfettered access to the international communications of Americans,” said ACLU lawyer Patrick Toomey.

Justice Department lawyers said the program is already subject to oversight by Congress and by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which approves requests to monitor foreign targets.

“We want the defendant in this case, but also this court and the American people, to have confidence in the integrity of this process,” said government lawyer Seth DuCharme.

Gleeson said he would rule at a later date.

The Justice Department revealed last year that it had collected Hasbajrami’s communications without a warrant after a new policy was put in place requiring such disclosure. He was already serving a 15-year sentence after pleading guilty to sending money to a Pakistani militant group.

Gleeson ruled in October that Hasbajrami could withdraw his plea and challenge the surveillance.

Hasbajrami is one of five defendants to receive such a notice and the third to mount a constitutional challenge.

Mohamed Mohamud, convicted of attempting to blow up what he thought was a car bomb during a sting operation, had his bid rejected by a judge in Oregon last year, the first U.S. court ruling to find the wiretapping constitutional.

A Colorado judge has not yet ruled on a challenge from Jamshid Muhtorov, accused of supporting an Uzbek militant group.

In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a similar appeal brought by the ACLU and other groups, although it did not rule on the merits. Instead, the court found the plaintiffs did not have standing because they were not specifically harmed by the law, an issue Hasbajrami does not have.

Reporting by Joseph Ax.Editing by Andre Grenon

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