updated 10/4/2006 6:59:16 PM ET 2006-10-04T22:59:16

The Bush administration can continue its warrantless surveillance program while it appeals a judge’s ruling that the program is unconstitutional, a federal appeals court ruled Wednesday.

The president has said the program is needed in the war on terrorism; opponents argue it oversteps constitutional boundaries on free speech, privacy and executive powers.

The unanimous ruling from a three-judge panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals gave little explanation for the decision. In the three-paragraph ruling, judges said that they balanced the likelihood an appeal would succeed, the potential damage to both sides and the public interest.

The Bush administration applauded the decision.

“We are pleased to see that it will be allowed to continue while the Court of Appeals examines the trial court’s decision, with which we strongly disagree,” Deputy White House press secretary Dana Perino said in a statement.

The program monitors international phone calls and e-mails to or from the United States involving people the government suspects have terrorist links. A secret court has been set up to grant warrants for such surveillance, but the government says it can’t always wait for a court to take action.

U.S. District Judge Anna Diggs Taylor in Detroit ruled Aug. 17 that the program was unconstitutional because it violates the rights to free speech and privacy and the separation of powers.

Officials: Program crucial to security
The Justice Department had urged the appeals court to allow it to keep the program in place while it argues its appeal, claiming that the nation faced “potential irreparable harm” and would be more vulnerable to a terrorist attack. The appeal is likely to take months.

“This program is both critical to preventing terrorist attacks and fully consistent with law,” said Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit in January seeking to stop the program on behalf of journalists, scholars and lawyers who say it has made it difficult for them to do their jobs because they believe many of their overseas contacts are likely targets. Many said they had been forced to take expensive and time-consuming overseas trips because their contacts wouldn’t speak openly on the phone or because they didn’t want to violate their contacts’ confidentiality.

The ACLU contends that the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which set up the secret court to grant warrants for such surveillance, gave the government enough tools to monitor suspected terrorists.

“We are confident that when the 6th Circuit addresses the merits of this case, it will agree that warrantless wiretapping of Americans violates the law and is unconstitutional,” Melissa Goodman, an ACLU attorney, said in a news release.

Similar lawsuits challenging the program have been filed by other groups, including in New York and San Francisco. The issue could wind up before the U.S. Supreme Court.

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