DENVER (AP) — The National Security Agency's warrantless surveillance programs have the potential for abuse but did not violate the constitutional rights of a suspect in a Denver-area terror case who argued that government spying has gone too far, a federal judge ruled.
Warrantless wiretaps were used appropriately in the case of Jamshid Muhtorov, who was accused in 2012 of providing material support to an Uzbek terrorist organization active in Afghanistan, Senior U.S. District Judge John Kane said in his Thursday ruling. The evidence against Muhtorov consists largely of phone calls and Internet communications.
The case touches on concerns raised by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden about the federal government's expanding spying practices. It was the first time the U.S. Justice Department publicly disclosed that it would use information from a warrantless program against someone suspected of terrorism.
Muhtorov sought to throw out evidence gathered through warrantless surveillance, saying it violated constitutional protections against unreasonable search and seizure.
Congress passed a law in June setting new limits on the NSA's bulk collection of Americans' phone records. But a separate, 2008 amendment to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, under which evidence was gathered against Muhtorov, is not set to expire until 2017.
Kane concluded that the amendment allows the federal government to tap into phone calls and e-mails, including those of U.S. citizens, without a specific warrant as long as the surveillance is targeted at a foreigner living overseas.
But he acknowledged that the government is susceptible to using the act as an "end-run" around wiretap laws that require a judge's approval for domestic electronic surveillance. And the law's limitations are "riddled with loopholes" that allow for rights violations, Kane said.
But in the Muhtorov case, the government used the surveillance appropriately for legitimate foreign intelligence purposes, Kane said.
Muhtorov, who was arrested with $2,800 in cash, two shrink-wrapped iPhones, an iPad and a GPS, has denied the charges against him.
Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, which helps represent Muhtorov, said the group and the suspect's public defenders have not decided how to proceed.
"The statute that the government relied on here allows the dragnet collection of American's international phone calls and emails, and we continue to believe the statute is unconstitutional," Jaffer said. "The government's investigative interests could be accomplished with a narrower statute that accommodated stronger safeguards."
Jaffer said questions about the constitutionality of the surveillance program may be answered by federal appeals courts handling similar cases.
Mohamed Mohamud, a Somali-American sentenced to 30 years in prison for plotting to bomb downtown Portland, Oregon, during an annual Christmas tree lighting ceremony, is appealing his conviction, saying surveillance methods used to build the case against him violated his rights.
By Sadie Gurman, AP Writer
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