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Bush ordered to halt tapping

The Australian | August 19 2006

A US federal judge has instructed the Bush administration to stop its controversial domestic eavesdropping program, ruling that it violates the constitution.

The ruling, the first against the surveillance program, was a blow for the White House, which had claimed the taps were an essential tool in the war on terrorism.

Judge Anna Diggs Taylor said in Detroit that wiretapping without a warrant violated the rights to free speech, protection against unreasonable searches and the constitutional check on the power of the presidency.

"There are no hereditary kings in America and no powers not created by the constitution," Judge Taylor said in the 44-page ruling on the tapping program.

The National Security Agency program has been widely criticised by civil rights activists and raised concern among members of Congress, including some in George W. Bush's Republican Party, who say the President may have overstepped his powers by authorising the bugging.

The administration had asked for the lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union to be thrown out, arguing that any court action on the case would jeopardise secrets in the war on terrorism.

The White House was angered by the ruling. The wiretaps were "firmly grounded in law and regularly reviewed to make sure steps are taken to protect civil liberties", spokesman Tony Snow said. "We couldn't disagree more with this ruling, and the Justice Department will seek an immediate stay of the opinion and appeal."

The case will be referred to the District Court, and could go all the way to the US Supreme Court. But in a terror-related case in June, the Supreme Court struck down the military commission trials set up by Mr Bush for the detainees held at the US prison camp in Guantanamo Bay.

Mr Bush authorised the wiretaps in secret after the September 11, 2001, terror attacks on the US, but the covert program became public when it was revealed by the US media last year.

The program allows the Government to eavesdrop on the international phone calls and emails of US citizens without obtaining a warrant, if the wiretaps are meant to track suspected al-Qa'ida agents.

But Judge Taylor ruled that by sidestepping the requirement to obtain warrants, the Bush administration had violated US surveillance laws.

The White House's argument in support of the program implied that Mr Bush's role as commander-in-chief of US forces gave him "the inherent power to violate not only the laws of the Congress but the first and fourth amendments of the constitution", the judge said.

Civil rights activists welcomed the decision.

"The ruling 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.

The ACLU lawsuit was filed on behalf of scholars, lawyers, journalists and non-profit groups that communicate with people in the Middle East and believe their phone calls and emails were being intercepted by the US secret service. A similar suit brought by the Centre for Constitutional Rights is before the federal court in New York.

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