WASHINGTON – In an extraordinary request, the Bush administration asked the Supreme Court (search) on Monday to let it keep its arguments secret in a case involving an immigrant's challenge of his treatment after the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
Mohamed Kamel Bellahouel wants the high court to consider whether the government acted improperly by secretly jailing him after the attacks and keeping his court fight private. He is supported by more than 20 journalism organizations and media companies.
Solicitor General Theodore Olson (search) told justices in a one-paragraph filing that "this matter pertains to information that is required to be kept under seal."
Justices sometimes are asked to keep parts of cases private because of information sensitive for national security or other reasons, but it's unusual for an entire filing to be kept secret.
Lucy A. Dalglish, executive director of The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (search), said she was disappointed by the government's request.
"The idea that there is nothing that could be filed publicly is really ridiculous," she said. "It just emphasizes our point that we're living in frightening times. People can be arrested, thrown in jail and have secret court proceedings, and we know absolutely nothing about it."
The court will decide later whether to consider Bellahouel's appeal and at the same time whether to allow the secret filing. Justices will be able to review the government's private arguments.
Bellahouel, an Algerian who worked as a waiter in South Florida, came under FBI scrutiny because hijackers Mohamed Atta and Marwan al Shehhi dined where he worked in the weeks before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
He was among hundreds of foreigners rounded up after the hijackings. The government has refused to release names and information about the detentions, arguing that a blanket secrecy policy is needed to protect national security.
The Supreme Court rejected an appeal last year from newspapers that sought information about the detentions. Bellahouel's case asks the justices to consider whether the government violated the nation's long tradition of open court proceedings.
Lower courts kept private the existence of the case. Olson's filing deletes the name of the appeals court that ruled against Bellahouel.
Bellahouel, who is free on $10,000 bond, is known in court papers only as M.K.B. Because of a mistake at the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, the M.K.B. records were briefly made public. A Miami legal newspaper reported his identity and said that he was released after five months, and after he had been taken to Alexandria, Va., to testify before a federal grand jury.
The case is M.K.B. v. Warden, 03-6747.