Treasury: Explaining terrorism charges too hard

PORTLAND — Attorneys for the U.S. government told a federal appeals court Wednesday that informing each person and organization listed as a global terrorist of the reasons they are so designated would be too much work.

They made the argument in a case involving the government's seizure of assets belonging to the U.S. chapter of Al Haramain Islamic Foundation Inc., a Saudi Arabia-based charity. The case is being heard by a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Al Haramain attorney David Cole said outside court that representatives of Al Haramain were left in the dark after the organization was put on the global terrorist list. They continued to fight the designation without knowing what was driving it.

Cole said he and other attorneys could have provided a much more effective defense for the organization if they knew the reasons for the charges.

"It would be extremely burdensome to give a list of charges," said the government's attorney, Douglas Letter, noting the U.S. Department of Treasury has designated thousands of organizations as having ties to terrorists.

U.S. Appeals Court Judge Susan Graber questioned whether having too many suspects means an organization shouldn't try to inform them of the charges against them.

"If you live in a city with a lot of bank robbers, you still have to give them a notice of charges," Graber said.

Cole said the Treasury Department has designated only "about a dozen" U.S-based organizations as having ties to terrorists. The rest of the designees have no rights to due process, Cole argued, culling most of the organizations from the list the Treasury Department would need to inform.

The department froze the assets of the Ashland chapter of the Islamic organization and declared it a "specially designated global terrorist" on Sept. 9, 2004.

Treasury officials believe the chapter delivered $150,000 overseas to Chechen mujahedeen, a concomitant issue that played out with the conviction of former Al Haramain Oregon head and former Ashland activist Pete Seda in federal court on tax charges last year.

The Treasury Department was able to show money reached Saudi Arabia, but not Chechnya. Seda has appealed the verdict. He was in court Wednesday but declined to comment.

In November 2008, U.S. District Judge Garr King said the Treasury Department Office of Foreign Assets Control needed only a "reasonable belief" that the charity was a "component of a larger organization that funds terrorism."

But the judge said the agency violated the charity's due process rights by failing to give it notice and a chance to make an argument against the designation. Both sides appealed to the 9th Circuit.

In December, in a separate but related case, a U.S. district court judge concluded that investigators wire-tapped the organization's phones without a warrant. He ruled that Al Haramain's attorneys should receive $2.5 million for waging the organization's nearly five-year legal challenge to the Bush administration's so-called Terrorist Surveillance Program.

The judge refused to award any punitive damages. The judge said the error was harmless and the investigators didn't act in bad faith in following the guidelines of the controversial program exposed by the New York Times in 2005.

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