A federal magistrate in Brooklyn yesterday insisted that government lawyers defending former Attorney General John Ashcroft and other top officials in a lawsuit brought by former immigrant detainees cannot dodge the plaintiffs’ persistent and unwelcome question: Are members of the United States trial team and likely witnesses ”” including Mr. Ashcroft and Robert S. Mueller III, the F.B.I. director ”” aware of any secret government monitoring of communications between the plaintiffs and their lawyers?

“Plaintiffs’ effort to learn whether their conversations with their attorneys were monitored by the government is not a mere fishing expedition based on unfounded speculation,” the magistrate, Judge Steven M. Gold, wrote in an 11-page decision. The order rejected the government’s request that he reconsider a similar order that he made orally on March 7.

He noted that “the government’s electronic surveillance of individuals suspected of links to terrorism has received widespread publicity and has even been acknowledged by the president of the United States.” And he cited findings by the inspector general that on more than 40 occasions, staff members of the Metropolitan Detention Center secretly video-recorded visits between lawyers and Muslim immigrants swept up and detained there after the Sept. 11 attacks, and later deported after being cleared of links to terrorism.


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