The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California recently announced the indictment of Oytun Ayse Mihalik, a Turkish citizen and resident of La Palma, California. The 4-count indictment names Ms. Mihalik and alleges that she sent three wire transfers to an individual in Pakistan with knowledge that the money would be used to prepare for and carry out attacks that would kill United States military personnel overseas. Ms. Mihalik is also alleged to have provided the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security with false statements during the course of the agencies’ investigations into her wire transfers.

The allegations against Ms. Mihalik are substantial. The charge of providing material support to terrorists carries a statutory maximum penalty of 15 years in federal prison. Ms. Mihalik is facing three of these charges. Additionally, the charge of making false statements in a matter involving international terrorism carries a maximum sentence of eight years in federal prison. Even though the charges carry significant maximum penalties, the most unsettling aspect of these charges against Ms. Mihalik is that the charges are premised on classified evidence that neither Ms. Mihalik nor defense counsel has reviewed.

The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (“FISA”) permits the U.S. Government to perform electronic surveillance and physical searches to obtain intelligence in the U.S. on foreign powers (such as enemy agents or spies) or individuals connected to international terrorist groups. As such, most of the information and evidence collected pursuant to such surveillance and searches pertains to the national defense and is classified. The prosecution may therefore protect the interests of the United States by requesting protective orders or offer to provide redacted summaries of the evidence against the defendant pursuant to the Classified Information Procedure Act (“CIPA”). Nonetheless, CIPA provides the defense with some very valuable tools.

Therefore defense counsel must be familiar with CIPA. Proper access to classified information is critically important to ensuring the government is put to its burden of proof and to afford defense counsel a meaningful opportunity to put forth applicable defenses. However, the defense’s needs are tempered by CIPA to avoid instances of “graymail” by defendants who might threaten to reveal classified information if prosecuted without saying what the evidence was or allowing the court to determine its relevance.

Accordingly, CIPA states that “if a defendant reasonably expects to disclose or to cause the disclosure of classified information in any manner in connection with any trial or pretrial proceeding involving criminal prosecution, the defendant shall . . . within 30 days prior to trial . . . notify the attorney for the United States and the court in writing.” Failing to follow such procedure risks empowering the court to deny the defense from accessing, reviewing, disclosing, or otherwise benefiting from classified information in its case. There is also a continuing obligation to disclose and describe any new classified information that may come up. This continuing responsibility states that such disclosures should be made “in writing as soon as possible” to both the attorney for the government and the court.

Defending national security related crimes presents both intellectual and procedural challenges. Defense counsel should therefore be well versed in both national security and criminal jurisprudence.

The author of this blog is Erich Ferrari, an attorney specializing in Federal Criminal Defense matters. If you have any questions please contact him at 202-280-6370 or ferrari@ferrari-legal.com.

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