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FBI settles case against lawyer for $2 million

WASHINGTON—Two years ago the FBI branded Oregon attorney Brandon Mayfield a terror suspect, secretly searched his house and eavesdropped on his conversations with his family and co-workers.

On Wednesday, Justice Department officials agreed to pay Mayfield $2 million to settle one part of his lawsuit for his wrongful arrest in connection with the 2004 Madrid train bombings that killed 191 people.

Mayfield, a former Army officer, also got a formal apology. And the settlement allows him to continue his legal challenge to the USA Patriot Act, which Mayfield charges violates the Fourth Amendment by permitting government searches without demonstrating probable cause that a crime has been committed.

"The United States acknowledges that the investigation and arrest were deeply upsetting to Mr. Mayfield, to Mrs. Mayfield and to their three young children," said Tasia Scolinos, a Justice Department spokeswoman, in a prepared statement. "And the United States regrets that it mistakenly linked Mr. Mayfield to this terrorist attack."

Mayfield believed he was singled out because of his Muslim faith. FBI agents, however, insisted that his arrest was based on a faulty fingerprint identification that linked him to the attack.

Either way, Mayfield's arrest is one of the FBI's most embarrassing episodes in its five-year campaign to detect terrorist cells inside the United States.

The case also cast doubt on the accuracy of the FBI's troubled fingerprint-identification program and raised questions about sweeping anti-terror measures passed by Congress in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Mayfield, 40, was detained for two weeks after agents matched the print of his left index finger with one found on a bag of detonators connected to the Madrid attack.

Spanish authorities, however, were pursuing other suspects. They warned the FBI that their own tests hadn't matched Mayfield's fingerprints with the evidence.

Despite the conflicting reports, FBI agents received approval for "sneak and peak" searches and eavesdropping on his home and office from a secret federal court, authorized by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, Mayfield's lawsuit alleges.

On May 6, 2004, FBI agents arrested him as a material witness. While in prison for two weeks, Mayfield said, agents threatened him with the death penalty.

Mayfield said he wasn't notified of the searches or the eavesdropping until after he was released. Initially, he thought that his home had been burglarized.

Justice Department Inspector General Glenn A. Fine later found that "contrary to public speculation" the FBI didn't use new provisions of the Patriot Act for the surveillance or searches.

Instead, the report found that the Patriot Act allowed agents to share information with other law enforcement and intelligence officials.

The inspector general's office also concluded that Mayfield's religion wasn't a "sole" cause of the arrest, but likely contributed to the failure "to sufficiently reconsider the identification after legitimate questions about it were raised."

Justice Department officials deny that religion played any part in his arrest.

But Mayfield called any other conclusion "ridiculous." Agents repeatedly cited his religion and ties to the Muslim community in documents given to a federal judge to support his arrest, he said.

Mayfield said that he wouldn't have settled if he'd been barred from pursuing his constitutional challenge to the Patriot Act.

"I am happy with the settlement," he said. "It allows us to move forward with the most important thing, which is the challenge to the Patriot Act. And even though there are pitfalls, I am confident we can win those challenges."

Since the arrest, FBI officials said they've made "significant" changes to the fingerprint identification program to prevent a future mistake.


(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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