Civil rights attorneys asked an appeals court to ignore the US government and to hear their legal challenge to warrantless wiretaps of US citizens.

US federal government attorneys argued the terrorist surveillance program has been placed in the hands of a secret court in early January, making the suit groundless.

But the American Civil Liberties Union opposed an adjournment Friday.

The Cincinnati, Ohio, appeals court was set to review the government’s appeal Wednesday of a federal court ruling that found President George W. Bush should not have authorized the ultra-secret National Security Agency to bug telephone, e-mail and other communications of suspected terrorists, including Americans.

For such monitoring, which began after the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States, authorities had to first obtain a special warrant, the decision said.

The government withdrew its appeal Thursday, pointing out that the president had discontinued the program on January 10.

In a court brief, government lawyers said there was “no longer any appropriate basis for proceeding with this litigation” because the president had already discontinued the electronic surveillance program, while refusing to acknowledge the program was illegal.

The ACLU countered that the government had violated the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and so should still be held to account, to prevent a reocurrance.

“The government cannot have it both ways. It cannot argue the case is moot because the government is currently in compliance with FISA, and at the same time expressly retain the authority to violate FISA again tomorrow,” the ACLU said in court documents.

The suit was filed by the ACLU on behalf of a number of journalists, lawyers, scholars and rights workers who believed their communications had been monitored.

They argued that the program prevented them from doing their work because people were afraid to speak with them on the telephone or send e-mails that could be monitored.

Some 30 cases were filed over the spying program, many aiming at the leading telephone companies for having allegedly cooperated with the NSA in spying.

A lower court ruled in August: “It was never the intent of the (Constitution) framers to give the president such unfettered control, particularly when his actions blatantly disregard the parameters clearly enumerated in the Bill of Rights.”

The government immediately appealed the decision.

The Ohio court was to weigh Wednesday the government’s appeal of the lower court ruling that Bush exceeded his authority as president in permitting the wiretaps without obtaining a special court’s approval.

Copyright © 2007 Agence France Presse

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