Bush fights NSA wiretap suit

The Bush administration on Monday asked a federal judge to dismiss a lawsuit challenging the National Security Agency’s domestic eavesdropping program, arguing that defending the four-year-old wiretapping program in open court would risk national security.

In arguments before U.S. District Judge Anna Diggs Taylor in Detroit, the American Civil Liberties Union on Monday renewed its call for a court order that would force the government to suspend its program of intercepting without a court order the international phone calls and e-mails of U.S. citizens.

But the U.S. Justice Department has asked federal judges in Detroit and New York to throw out the landmark challenges to the eavesdropping program.

In both cases, the Bush administration has invoked a legal doctrine known as the “state-secrets privilege” that it has used to head off other court action spy programs.

“If the court accepts the state-secret argument, we are truly facing a constitutional crisis in this country,” Michael Steinberg, legal director for ACLU Michigan, told reporters after the hearing.

The ACLU, which filed the lawsuit in January, argues that the NSA wiretaps violate free-speech and privacy rights protected by the U.S. Constitution.

Government lawyers on Monday argued that the NSA program was key to protecting national security.

“This program targets members or agents of al Qaeda,” Anthony Coppolino, the lead attorney for the Department of Justice said in the hearing, which lasted an hour and a half.

Coppolino said the program was “well within bounds of the law” and that it was needed to “detect and prevent foreign terrorist threats in the United States.”

Taylor, who was appointed to the federal bench in 1979 by then-President Jimmy Carter, adjourned court without indicating when she would rule on whether the lawsuit can proceed.

Several individuals and groups — including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the American-Arab Discrimination Committee, the Asian American Legal Defense and members of Congress — have filed briefs in support of the ACLU’s claim.

The lawsuit was prompted by President George W. Bush’s disclosure in December that he had authorized the warrantless eavesdropping shortly after the September 11 attacks in order to track suspected communication from al Qaeda operatives.

U.S. officials have declined to provide details on how widely the NSA wiretaps have been used or what communications have been intercepted.

The ACLU said it expected a decision soon from Taylor. “She has so far been proceeding quite quickly,” said the ACLU’s associate legal director Ann Beeson.

The ACLU filed its lawsuit on behalf of scholars, attorneys, journalists and nonprofit groups that regularly communicate by phone and e-mail with people in the Middle East.

The case was filed in Detroit because the area is home to one of the largest Arab populations outside the Middle East.

The Center for Constitutional Rights has a parallel case pending before a federal judge in New York.

© 2006 Reuters