Times Herald-Record : Public might not hear all evidence in Stewart terror case

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Public might not hear all evidence in Stewart terror case

Terror-probe secrecy an issue

By Oliver Mackson | May 30, 2009

WHITE PLAINS — The case of four Newburgh men accused of plotting to blow up synagogues and military planes is likely to draw plenty of public interest, but it might also prompt a judge to put some evidence off-limits to the public.

Two similar terrorism cases in New York's federal courts prompted judges to sign protective orders that put classified information under wraps, with defense lawyers agreeing never to disclose it — even after the cases end.

A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office said it's too early to tell whether prosecutors will ask for such an order. But a former federal prosecutor with experience reviewing wiretap applications for the U.S. Justice Department predicted such an order will be sought in the Newburgh case.

"In a case of this magnitude, this sensitive, the government is given wide latitude in protecting the methods, the means and the sources of information involved in the case," said David Hoovler, a former assistant U.S. attorney and Orange County prosecutor who's now in private practice in Chester.

In a similar case being prosecuted in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn, a judge has issued an order that covers classified evidence against four men accused of plotting to blow up jet fuel supply lines and storage tanks at JFK International Airport.

Two years ago, a federal judge in Albany signed a protective order that covered classified evidence against two Albany men convicted on conspiracy charges involving the sale of a missile that was supposed to be deployed by terrorists.

The sale was a sting, and the government informant who arranged the deal has been named as the same informant who led the Newburgh four to believe they were buying armaments.

Worries over sealed files

Judge Thomas McAvoy's sealing order was challenged by news organizations and the New York Civil Liberties Union, which argued it was too broad. McAvoy eventually ruled that redacted versions of some documents could be kept in the public court file. Still, the NYCLU's Christopher Dunn sees reason for worry.

"There's been a notable trend since 9/11 for there to be more sealed court filings, and that certainly reduces the public's understanding of these prosecutions," he said. "It's very difficult to know if the courts are getting this right because we don't know what's in the sealed documents."