Al-Buthi at heart of eavesdropping case


Soliman al-Buthi is a prominent religious leader in Saudi Arabia, a father of three, and a ranking government official.

He's also a terrorist, according to the United States and United Nations.

His lawyers argue that much of the evidence against al-Buthi was misinterpreted by National Security Agency officials who eavesdropped on conversations between al-Buthi and his American attorneys. Those intercepted communications are at the heart of a constitutional challenge to the Bush administration's warrantless wiretapping program, which will be heard today by a federal appeals court in San Francisco.

Among the dozens of lawsuits alleging civil right violations by the secret surveillance program, legal experts say the one involving the Oregon charity al-Buthi controlled has the best shot of succeeding. That's because al-Buthi and his lawyers claim to have proof their communications were monitored: a top-secret NSA call log accidentally turned over to the defense team by government officials.

will not attend today's hearing at the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals because he remains a fugitive in this country. He's also listed on an Interpol "no fly" list and is subject to arrest and deportation to the United States if he steps outside Saudi Arabia, which does not extradite its citizens.

Despite all this, he was recently promoted by the Saudi government to health department director in charge of inspecting restaurants and drafting plans to combat the spread of bird flu.

"I am a very respected person in Riyadh," al-Buthi said in a recent telephone interview with The Associated Press, referring to Saudi Arabia's most populous city and his hometown.

first attracted the attention of the U.S. government when he arrived in 1999 in Ashland, better known for its annual Shakespeare festival than as a center for fundamentalist Islamic teachings, where he and longtime Ashland Islamic and peace activist Pete Seda founded a local chapter of the charity.

— — Seda

As director of U.S. operations for the Saudi-based charity Al-Haramain, al-Buthi used $187,000 in travelers checks to buy the property in Ashland that became the charity's U.S. headquarters.

At its height, Al-Haramain raised almost $50 million a year in contributions worldwide, with the vast majority going to feed hungry Somali orphans, educate poor Indonesian students and help sick Kenyan children.

But Saudi officials shuttered the Al-Haramain headquarters in Riyadh after U.S. officials said a small percentage of the charity's funds were being siphoned for terrorist causes.

was charged in a federal indictment with funneling more than $150,000 from Al Haramain's Oregon bank account to Muslim terrorists in Chechnya. The government also alleged al-Buthi and the charity lied on a tax return, claiming the money was used to buy property in Missouri.

In September 2004, the U.S. Department of Treasury formally named him a "specially designated global terrorist."

"The investigation shows direct links between the U.S. branch and Osama bin Laden," The U.S. Department of Treasury said in a press release announcing that the Ashland charity and al-Buthi were being placed on the government's terror list alongside bin Laden.

"Information shows that individuals associated with the branch tried to conceal the movement of funds intended for Chechnya by omitting them from tax returns and mischaracterizing their use," it continued.

Federal prosecutor Christopher Cardani, who is in charge of the case in Oregon, declined to comment.

and his lawyers argue the terrorist label was wrongly applied to a man who has been investigated by authorities in Saudi Arabia, a key U.S. ally in the War on Terror, who found no merit to the claims.

"My government knows me very well," he said. "I have been twice interrogated."

says the money ended up at a Chechnya charity for refugees rather than in the hands of terrorists. The tax issue, he says, was an innocent mistake made by the charity's accountant without his knowledge.

He also acknowledged that he erred in not declaring he was carrying such a large amount of money out of the United States, which requires anyone removing more than $10,000 from the country to report it. says he was unaware of that requirement.

After receiving the call log and recognizing it as proof they had been wiretapped, al-Buthi and his attorneys sued the U.S. government.

Three appellate judges will now decide whether the eavesdropping program that allegedly ensnared them was illegal. A second lawsuit to be heard Wednesday by the 9th Circuit, by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, also challenges the constitutionality of the warrantless wiretapping program discontinued earlier this year by President Bush.

Administration lawyers are expected to argue that national security interests prevent them from mounting a defense, and the cases should be thrown out.

says he plans to petition for removal from the U.S. and U.N. terror lists, but he faces an uphill battle in the United States, which has never granted such an appeal.

"Each one has been upheld," a senior Justice Department official said at a Monday briefing discussing the federal appeals court hearing. "We have a complete winning record."

The official insisted on anonymity because of the pending litigation.

Back home in Riyadh, al-Buthi said he is so prominent and trusted that earlier this year a U.S. State Department official invited him to a dinner to honor the chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

After determining the June 2 dinner would be at a local restaurant and not at the American embassy &

technically U.S. soil where he could be arrested &

he accepted.

The next day, an embarrassed U.S. officials withdrew the invitation.

"No problem," al-Buthi said he told the official. "I understand."

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