Friday, August 18, 2006

Court Rules Wiretaps Illegal; Says Bush Not King

Court rules wiretaps violate rights
By Kevin Krolicki

DETROIT (Reuters) - A judge ordered the Bush administration on Thursday to stop a domestic wiretap program it says protects Americans from terrorism but which the judge said violated their civil rights.

The administration, buoyed by polls showing Americans back its handling of security and terrorism, appealed against the federal court ruling, saying: "We couldn't disagree more."

U.S. District Judge Anna Diggs Taylor said the wiretaps under a five-year-old "Terrorist Surveillance Program" violated freedom of speech, protections against unreasonable searches and a constitutional check on the power of the presidency.

"There are no hereditary kings in America and no powers not created by the Constitution," Taylor said in a 44-page ruling.

The National Security Agency program has been widely criticized by civil rights activists and raised concern among lawmakers, including some in President George W. Bush's own Republican Party, who say he may have overstepped his powers.

Bush authorized the NSA program after the September 11 attacks on the United States, and it became public last year.

Both sides agreed the program could go on until the judge hears the government's case for a stay pending appeal.

The program allows the government to eavesdrop on the international phone calls and e-mails of U.S. citizens without obtaining a warrant, if those wiretaps are made to track suspected al Qaeda operatives.

"We have confidence in the lawfulness of this program," Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, said after Thursday's ruling. "That's why the appeal has been lodged."

A Justice Department statement called the program "an early warning system to detect and prevent a terrorist attack."

Officials said last week a foiled plot to blow up airliners from Britain underscored the need for secret surveillance.

"The very real threat posed by radical Islamists requires every tool at our disposal, including the ability to track financial activity and the communications of terrorists," said Rep. Pete Hoekstra, a Michigan Republican and chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives intelligence committee.


The American Civil Liberties Union filed the suit which could well end up being heard by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court delivered a similar blow to the administration in June when it struck down as illegal a system of military tribunals set up to try foreign terrorism suspects held at the Guantanamo Bay prison camp.

On Thursday, the judge ruled the Bush administration had violated the terms of a 1978 law by skirting a requirement that warrants be issued by a special secret court for eavesdropping on individuals or suspects in the United States.

The judge sided with the government on one issue -- that arguments in open court about the NSA's "data mining" of phone records would jeopardize national security and rejected an ACLU challenge to that part of the NSA's surveillance program.

The ACLU suit was filed on behalf of scholars, attorneys, journalists and nonprofit groups that regularly communicate with people in the Middle East and believed their phone calls and e-mail may have been intercepted by the U.S. government.

"The ruling of the judge is not only a victory for the American Muslim community but a victory for the entire American population," said Dawud Walid, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations for Michigan, which joined the ACLU as a plaintiff in the lawsuit.

A similar suit brought by the Center for Constitutional Rights is pending in federal court in New York. The judge in that case is set to hear arguments on September 5.

The Bush administration has thrown its support behind a bill sponsored by Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania that would submit the NSA's surveillance program to a secret court for review.

(Additional reporting by Jui Chakravorty; Claudia Parsons and Daniel Trotta in New York; Deborah Charles and Frances Kerry in Washington)