August 17, 2006

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)