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Court sanctions lawyers behind September 11 conspiracy case

By Terry Baynes

(Reuters) - A federal appeals court sanctioned two California lawyers on Thursday over a lawsuit they filed, dismissed as frivolous, that accused former officials in the Bush administration of allowing the September 11 Pentagon attack to occur as part of a broad conspiracy.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit ordered the two lawyers to pay $15,000 total in sanctions in addition to double an unspecified amount the government spent defending the case.

Three attorneys -- Dennis Cunningham, William Veale and Mustapha Ndanusa -- filed the lawsuit in 2008 on behalf of April Gallop, a member of the U.S. Army injured in the Pentagon attack on September 11, 2001.

The lawyers accused then-Vice President Dick Cheney and then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld of allowing the Pentagon attack to occur through inaction, despite having what the suit described as real-time information that a hijacked plane was approaching.

The suit, which also questioned the nature of the attacks, said the inaction rose to the level of conspiracy to create a political atmosphere that would allow the U.S. government to pursue domestic and international policy objectives.

The suit accused the men and others of conspiracy to cause death and bodily harm and a violation of the Antiterrorism Act.

The September 11 attacks, carried out by 19 hijackers from the global militant network al Qaeda, led U.S. forces to invade Afghanistan to topple the Taliban rulers who had harbored al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

That war served as a precursor to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003, which the administration chiefly justified by citing intelligence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. No such weapons were subsequently found.

U.S. District Judge Denny Chin dismissed the case in 2010, ruling that the complaint was frivolous and a product of "cynical delusion and fantasy." A three-judge panel of the 2nd Circuit upheld that decision, imposing $15,000 in sanctions on the three lawyers for filing the suit. All three appealed.

In requesting a rehearing, the lawyers asked the court to disqualify the three-judge panel "and any like-minded colleagues" from participating in the decision to grant review, accusing the panel of "severe bias, based in active personal emotions arising from the 9/11 attack."

But the 2nd Circuit took exception to the request, concluding no attorney would make such a demand in good faith.

The court upheld sanctions against Veale and Cunningham but reversed them against Ndanusa, who only served a minor role as local counsel. Ndanusa said all of the lawyers acted in good faith in bringing the lawsuit.

The court also ordered Cunningham, who described himself as "the decider" in developing the case, to inform other federal courts in circuit of the sanctions order for the next year.

"We are not delusional by any means. We have the facts, and they cannot be explained," said Veale, a former chief assistant public defender for Contra Costa County, California.

Cunningham did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

(Reporting By Terry Baynes; Editing by Cynthia Johnston)

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