Federal judge allows lawsuit vs CIA by lawyers, journalists

The following is an excerpt from The Dissenter.

A federal judge ruled that four American attorneys and journalists, who visited WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange while he was in the Ecuador embassy in London, may sue the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) for their role in the alleged copying of the contents of their electronic devices.

The Americans sufficiently alleged that the CIA and CIA Director Mike Pompeo—through the Spanish security company UC Global and its director David Morales—“violated their reasonable expectation of privacy” under the Fourth Amendment of the United States Constitution.

In August 2022, four Americans sued the CIA and Pompeo: Margaret Ratner Kunstler, a civil rights activist and human rights attorney; Deborah Hrbek, a media lawyer who represented Assange or WikiLeaks; journalist John Goetz, who worked for Der Spiegel when the German media organization first partnered with WikiLeaks; and journalist Charles Glass, who wrote articles on Assange for The Intercept.

Glass, Goetz, Hrbek, and Kunstler alleged that they were required to “surrender” their electronic to UC Global employees, who were hired by the Ecuador government to provide security for the embassy. 

On June 4, the Spanish newspaper El País reported that Morales had a folder on his laptop marked “CIA.” (Both UC Global and Morales were also sued by Glass, Goetz, Hrbek, and Kunstler.) 

The United States government moved to dismiss the claims against the CIA and Pompeo.

Judge John Koeltl of the U.S. District Court in the Southern District of New York granted several parts of the government’s motion, but he refused to dismiss a claim related to allegations that the CIA copied their electronics and violated their privacy.

“In an April 2017 speech,” Koeltl noted, “Pompeo ‘pledged that his office would embark upon a ‘long term’ campaign against WikiLeaks.’ The plaintiffs allege that Pompeo and the CIA recruited Morales to conduct surveillance on Assange and his visitors at a January 2017 private security industry convention at the Las Vegas Sands Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada.”

“Shortly after returning from the Las Vegas convention, Morales created an operations unit and improved UC Global’s systems to implement the alleged agreement with the CIA. Copying the contents of the plaintiffs’ electronic devices was part of this alleged agreement.”

Koeltl added, “Additionally, the plaintiffs allege that the data collected by UC Global was either personally delivered to Las Vegas; Washington, D.C.; and New York City by Morales (who traveled to these locations more than sixty times in the three years following the Las Vegas convention) or placed on a server that provided external access to the CIA.”

According to Koeltl, “Whether Morales and UC Global were indeed acting as agents of Pompeo and the CIA is a question of fact that cannot be decided on a motion to dismiss.”

“In this case, the misconduct alleged is a violation of the plaintiffs’ reasonable expectation of privacy in the contents of their electronic devices under the Fourth Amendment. The Government concedes that the plaintiffs had a right to privacy in the contents of their electronic devices,” Koeltl stated.

At a November hearing, Koeltl took an interest in the apparent fact that the government had not obtained a warrant to access the contents of the attorneys or journalists’ electronics. 

“If the Government’s search (of their conversations and electronic devices) and seizure (of the contents of their electronic devices) were unlawful, the plaintiffs have suffered a concrete and particularized injury fairly traceable to the challenged program and redressable by a favorable ruling,” Koeltl declared.

He also contended that the Americans did not have to demonstrate that the government planned to “imminently use” the information that they collected from their electronic devices.

The U.S. government on behalf of the CIA will likely appeal the decision.

Nevertheless, it is a remarkable development because there is a distinct possibility that there may be a civil trial, where CIA spying on Americans is challenged. 

Read Judge Koeltl’s 27 page decision here.

Read the Dissenter article here.

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