DETROIT — The Justice Department launched an appeal within hours of a federal judge’s ruling that, for the first time, struck down President Bush’s warrantless wiretapping program as an unconstitutional infringement on the right to privacy and free speech.
The judge on Thursday ordered an immediate halt to the program, but the government said it would request a stay during the appeals process, arguing that the secret surveillance program is crucial to stopping terrorists.
“We have confidence in the lawfulness of this program,” Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said in Washington. “We’re going to do everything we can do in the courts to allow this program to continue.”
The American Civil Liberties Union, which brought the lawsuit, said it opposed the stay but agreed to delay enforcement of the injunction until the judge hears arguments Sept. 7.
‘No hereditary Kings in America’
U.S. District Judge Anna Diggs Taylor was the first to find the National Security Agency surveillance program unconstitutional, and she took the Bush administration to task for its arguments, saying it appeared to be saying the president had the “inherent power” to violate laws of Congress.
“There are no hereditary Kings in America and no powers not created by the Constitution. So all ’inherent powers’ must derive from that Constitution,” Taylor wrote in her 43-page opinion.
“The public interest is clear, in this matter. It is the upholding of our Constitution,” she wrote.
The Justice Department quickly filed notice of appeal, saying it would seek a reversal by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
White House press secretary Tony Snow said the Bush administration “couldn’t disagree more with this ruling.” He said the program carefully targets communications of suspected terrorists and “has helped stop terrorist attacks and saved American lives.”
Feds: Time is of the essence
The lawsuit was filed in January on behalf of journalists, scholars and lawyers who say the program has made it difficult for them to do their jobs. They believe many of their overseas contacts are likely targets of the program, which monitors international phone calls and e-mails to or from the U.S. involving people the government suspects have terrorist links.
The ACLU says the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which set up a secret court to grant warrants for such surveillance, gave the government enough tools to monitor suspected terrorists.
But the government says it can’t always wait for a court to take action. It says the NSA program is well within the president’s authority but proving that would require revealing state secrets.
The ACLU says the state-secrets argument is irrelevant because the Bush administration already had publicly revealed enough information about the program for Taylor to rule. The administration has decried leaks that led to a report in The New York Times last year revealing the existence of the program.
Taylor, a Carter appointee, said the government appeared to believe the program is beyond judicial scrutiny.
“It was never the intent of the framers to give the president such unfettered control, particularly where his actions blatantly disregard the parameters clearly enumerated in the Bill of Rights,” she wrote. “The three separate branches of government were developed as a check and balance for one another.”
ACLU executive director Anthony Romero called Taylor’s opinion “another nail in the coffin in the Bush administration’s legal strategy in the war on terror.”
One ruling against ACLU
While siding with the ACLU on the wiretapping issue, Taylor dismissed a separate claim by the group over NSA data-mining of phone records. She said not enough had been publicly revealed about that program to support the claim and further litigation would jeopardize state secrets.
The lawsuit alleged that the NSA “uses artificial intelligence aids to search for keywords and analyze patterns in millions of communications at any given time.” Multiple lawsuits have been filed related to data-mining against phone companies, accusing them of improperly turning over records to the NSA.
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