Judge: US gov't wiretapping program illegal

A U.S. judge has ruled that a U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) program to wiretap telephone and Internet traffic of U.S. residents is illegal and must be stopped.

Judge Anna Diggs Taylor of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan on Thursday ordered the NSA and "its agents, employees, representatives and any other persons or entities in active concert or participation" with the agency to halt the so-called Terrorist Surveillance Program.

The program allowed the NSA to monitor communications between U.S. residents and people in other countries with suspected ties to terrorist group al Qaeda, without getting court-ordered warrants.

The program, authorized by U.S. President George Bush in 2002, violates the U.S. Constitution's guarantees of freedom of speech and association and its prohibitions against unreasonable searches and seizures, Taylor wrote in her order. The NSA program also violates the separation of powers clause in the Constitution, she wrote, as well as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which set courts to issue warrants for wiretaps focused on counterintelligence.

"The public interest is clear, in this matter," Taylor wrote. "It is the upholding of our Constitution."

Bush has defended the program as a valuable tool used to track down potential terrorists. The program is "firmly grounded in law" and only targets international phone calls in which one participant is suspected to be linked to al Qaeda, Bush spokesman Tony Snow said in a statement.

"We couldn't disagree more with this ruling," Snow added. "The whole point is to detect and prevent terrorist attacks before they can be carried out. That's what the American people expect from their government, and it is the President's most solemn duty to ensure their protection."

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) said Thursday it has already appealed Taylor's order. The NSA program is a "critical tool that ensures we have in place an early warning system to detect and prevent a terrorist attack," the DOJ said in a statement. Taylor's order to shut down the program will be delayed until after a hearing to determine whether the ruling should be postponed until the appeal process ends, the DOJ said.

U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, cheered Taylor's ruling, saying he believes the NSA program is illegal.

"This has become another unfortunate example of how White House misdirection, arrogance and mismanagement have needlessly complicated our goal of protecting the American people," Leahy said in a statement. "We can and should wiretap terrorists under the current ... law. The problem has been the Bush-Cheney Administration's insistence on doing it illegally, without checks and balances to prevent abusing the rights of Americans."

The NSA, claiming it could not argue the case without disclosing state secrets, asked Taylor to dismiss a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and U.S. Islamic groups. Taylor rejected the NSA's request.

The ACLU and other plaintiffs argued the NSA's program made it difficult for U.S. residents such as scholars, lawyers and journalists to communicate internationally without government monitoring.

The Michigan case is related to a series of lawsuits against AT&T and other telecom carriers being heard in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. In those cases, individuals and civil-liberties groups have sued the carriers for allegedly participating in the NSA's wiretapping program. In July, the California judge denied a U.S. government motion to dismiss the main case against AT&T.

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