Friday, February 10, 2006

A Falls Church man convicted of joining al Qaeda and plotting to assassinate President Bush has joined the ranks of those seeking a review of their convictions based on concerns about Mr. Bush’s post-September 11 eavesdropping program.

Attorneys for Ahmed Omar Abu Ali, 24, last week asked a federal judge to order prosecutors to divulge whether Abu Ali was ever a subject of the warrantless eavesdropping program that Mr. Bush ordered implemented shortly after the attacks in 2001. They also asked the judge to delay Abu Ali’s Feb. 17 sentencing.

Born in Houston and raised in Northern Virginia, Abu Ali traveled to Saudi Arabia to attend college and was arrested by the Saudis in June 2003. He admitted joining al Qaeda and discussing numerous terrorist plots, including a plan to assassinate Mr. Bush and to return to the United States as the leader of a terror cell.

Abu Ali said he had been tortured into a false confession, but a U.S. District Court jury in Alexandria rejected his claims and in November convicted him on all counts. He faces a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years and up to life in prison.

It is not clear how Abu Ali’s case would have been affected by the eavesdropping program, if at all. Court testimony indicated that the Saudis arrested Abu Ali on their own initiative as part of an investigation into the May 2003 bombings in Riyadh that killed more than 30 people.

An FBI agent testified that Abu Ali had been under investigation in the United States, but that investigation preceded September 11, 2001, when authorities were investigating a group of Muslim men who used paintball games as a means to train for holy war around the world.

The defense motion, though, argues that Abu Ali was a likely target of the National Security Agency eavesdropping program because he was under government surveillance while the program was in effect and because the eavesdropping focused on al Qaeda.

Also, the law requiring prosecutors to turn over evidence gained from wiretaps is broad, so it’s possible that any wiretaps involving Abu Ali should have been disclosed to the defense even if their contents were not central to the issues at trial.

The defense also wrote a letter to prosecutors seeking details about any undisclosed surveillance. In response, prosecutor David Laufman wrote that the government sees “no basis to stay Mr. Abu Ali’s sentencing.”

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