Somewhere in the federal courthouse in Jefferson City, a search warrant contains the information regarding a search conducted in Columbia by the FBI and other federal agencies. The warrant is sealed and not open to public inspection. Its secrets are known to the federal magistrate who authorized the search and the agency that made the request, which itself is not publicly known.
The U. S. Treasury Department alleges that the Islamic American Relief Agency is part of an international network that helped finance terrorism abroad. If any criminal charges arise from the search of its office, that information could also be kept secret. The FBI is giving no indication of when — if ever — the information will become public. Search warrants are often sealed before the searches are conducted to avoid alerting those under investigation, however, they usually become a matter of public record shortly thereafter.
Special Agent Jeff Lanza of the FBI’s Kansas City office would say only that the warrant was filed at the Jefferson City Federal Court House. Judge William Knox is the federal magistrate for the central division of Missouri’s Western Federal Court. Clerks at the federal courthouse would not say what judge handled the warrant or how — or where — the warrant is stored. The U.S. Marshals’ office and U.S. Attorney’s office in Kansas City also refused to comment.
Determining how or where sealed records are kept is difficult. Gregg Leslie, legal defense director for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, which tracks these types of cases, said procedures vary among different federal courts. Sealed documents might be on a non-public computer system, or listed publicly as “sealed.”
This type of secrecy creates an uphill battle for defense attorneys.
“Litigating in the blind,” is how Joshua Dratel, a New York defense attorney with experience in terrorism cases, describes defending a case where the warrant or other key records are sealed. It is particularly difficult for a defense attorney to argue for the opening of documents of which he does not know the contents.
Although Lanza would not comment on the type of warrant used in the investigation, Dratel said federal intelligence surveillance warrants are often used in terrorism-related investigations. In the 26 years since the passing of the 1978 Federal Intelligence Surveillance Act, a defense lawyer has never been able to see such a warrant. Since September 2001, Dratel said, the use of such warrants has more than doubled.
“When the process is unreviewed and unchecked, the potential for abuse is rampant,” he said, adding that transparency of government is a fundamental principle of a democratic government. Although sealed search warrants predate the 2001 Patriot Act, that act expanded the powers of surveillance used in the gathering of evidence for obtaining warrants, such as applying for wiretaps and collecting personal records.
Shareef Akeel, the Michigan attorney representing the IARA, said he hopes to work with the government to recover personal items seized last week, but is still exploring the legal options regarding the unsealing of any investigation records.
Jennifer Myers of the Missourian contributed to this report.