Supreme Court sides with FBI in post-9/11 surveillance trial

The Supreme Court on Friday sided with the US government in a lawsuit filed against the FBI over a controversial post-9/11 surveillance operation that targeted a Muslim community in California.

In a unanimous decision, the court found the government could respond to the litigation by invoking state secrets privilege, a legal doctrine that allows government information to be concealed if its disclosure would harm national security.

The decision was only about the narrow, technical question of whether state secrets privilege is available to the government here. The 9-0 decision, written by the justice Samuel AlitoSamuel AlitoSupreme Court denies GOP demands to stop new maps in North Carolina, Pennsylvania Supreme Court sides with FBI in post-9/11 surveillance lawsuit Supreme Court says Kentucky AG can defend the state abortion law MOREruled that the FBI could invoke this legal doctrine as the case progressed through the lower courts.

The dispute dates back to 2006, when the FBI launched a 14-month counterterrorism operation to surveil members of the Muslim community in Southern California.

The bureau relied on an informant, Craig Monteilh, to pose as a Muslim convert. He recorded his conversations in mosques and during other interactions. In the midst of the operation, ironically, Monteilh began making provocative statements about jihad that so alarmed his new Muslim acquaintances that they eventually reported him to the FBI.

Monteilh and the FBI later parted company, and he made the details of the operation public. The FBI has since confirmed that Monteilh made secret recordings as part of his undercover work.

In 2011, three Muslim men who had been spied on sued the FBI and its agents, alleging, among other things, that they had been unlawfully targeted because of their religion.

In response, the government invoked state secrets privilege and asked the judge to dismiss the relevant claims because litigating them would require disclosure of privileged information. The court granted the FBI’s request, prompting an appeal from the plaintiffs.

The United States Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, based in San Francisco, overturned the district court’s decision, siding with the FBI and allowing some of the Muslim plaintiffs’ claims to proceed.

The appeals court ruled that the district court erred in applying state secrets privilege rather than using a procedure provided for in a provision of the 1970s law called the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).

But Friday’s unanimous Supreme Court ruling overruled the lower appeals court, with the justices finding that the FISA provision at issue did not eliminate or restrict the availability of state secrets privilege.

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