Thursday, February 01, 2007

Court urged to rule on eavesdropping program

Court urged to rule on eavesdropping program
By Andrea Hopkins

CINCINNATI (Reuters) - A U.S. civil rights group urged a federal appeals court on Wednesday to uphold a ruling against the Bush Administration's domestic spying program, although the White House has agreed a special court can monitor the eavesdropping.

The American Civil Liberties Union said its challenge to President George W. Bush's domestic wiretapping program should not be dropped simply because the government had volunteered, for now, not to renew the eavesdropping activities.

"It's this court's duty to serve as check on the arbitrary exercise of government power to wiretap American citizens on American soil," ACLU lead attorney Ann Beeson told a three-judge panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

She noted the Bush Administration was still claiming the "inherent authority" to engage in eavesdropping without a warrant, and that nothing would stop it from withdrawing from the monitoring system in the future.

"A failure to decide the case could leave it up to the president to decide when and whether to obey the law," Beeson said.

A lawyer for the government urged the court to dismiss the case, saying Bush's decision to allow a secret panel of judges who oversee the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to monitor the program meant there was no longer a civil rights issue at stake.

"Those orders have eliminated the central premise for the plaintiffs' legal challenge in this case," said U.S. Justice Department lawyer Greg Garre. "What's left of this case is ... whether the president can authorize electronic surveillance outside of FISA in the future."

The panel of judges, two Republicans and a Democrat, questioned both sides but made no immediate ruling. It may be weeks before a decision is taken.


The surveillance program, exposed by The New York Times in December 2005, was authorized by Bush to monitor the international phone calls and e-mails of U.S. citizens, without first obtaining a court warrant.

It caused a political uproar among Democrats and some Republicans, as well as civil rights activists, who said it violated U.S. law.

A U.S. district court in August ruled the program violated the Constitution and a 1978 law prohibiting surveillance of U.S. citizens on U.S. soil without the approval of the special surveillance court, but the government appealed.

The ACLU plaintiffs include lawyers who say they cannot defend clients accused of terrorism because the government, under they wiretapping program, can listen into attorney-client conversations.

White House officials defended the program for more than a year, saying the warrantless surveillance that began soon after the 2001 attacks had helped protect against terrorism.

Under threat of investigation by a new Democratic-controlled Congress, the Bush administration announced in mid-January an end to the program and said it would work with the secret federal court that issues warrants for electronic surveillance inside the United States.

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said on Wednesday he would let selected members of Congress see secret court documents that authorized Bush's newly revised domestic spying program.