Judge rules against NSA eavesdropping program

Electronic surveillance program runs counter to the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, judge says.

A federal court in Michigan said Thursday that the National Security Agency cannot keep monitoring telephone calls and e-mails of millions of Americans without warrants.

The ruling by Judge Anna Diggs Taylor thrilled civil libertarians, who claimed the Bush administration's surveillance program violates citizens' constitutional rights to free speech and privacy.

The electronic surveillance program, which was exposed by The New York Times last December, also runs counter to the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, Taylor said in a 44-page ruling. American Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Anthony Romero told reporters on a conference call that the decision was "another nail in the coffin" of the government's legal strategy in the war on terror.

The ACLU filed the case in January on behalf of a group of journalists, scholars, attorneys and nonprofits who routinely communicate by phone and e-mail with people in the Middle East. They say the nature of their calls and e-mails led them to believe they are being monitored by the NSA.

The plaintiffs included authors James Bamford, Christopher Hitchens and Tara McKelvey, as well as New York University scholar Barnett Rubin. The Council on American Islamic Relations, Greenpeace and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers also joined the lawsuit on behalf of their staff and membership.

Greenpeace General Counsel Tom Wetterer said the ruling "exemplifies the beauty of our democracy." Rubin, who recently returned from a research trip to Afghanistan, said it was a victory for him and fellow litigants but also for national security, which he claimed is undermined by the warrantless spying.

The court dismissed requests made by the ACLU to learn more about government data-mining initiatives. ACLU Associate Legal Director Anne Beeson called that portion of the ruling "very narrow." Taylor found that laws governing state secrets prevented enough facts from being made public for her to rule. The ACLU is still discussing whether it will appeal on those grounds.

The NSA program is a "critical tool" in detecting and preventing terrorist attacks, the Justice Department said in a statement. The agency asked the district court to stay the ruling pending an appeal to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Taylor decision "is going to be a very important part of [congressional] debate in the fall," ACLU Washington Legislative Office Director Caroline Fredrickson said. Many members of Congress have "already recognized that the spying program has been very troubling."

Senate Judiciary Committee ranking Democrat Patrick Leahy of Vermont said Thursday that he has always believed the NSA program violated U.S. laws and that FISA is adequate. Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., whose FISA reform bill is currently pending on Capitol Hill, was en route to Jerusalem and unavailable for comment, spokeswoman Courtney Boone said.

The Senate Intelligence Committee, which has held public and closed-door hearings about NSA e-surveillance, was reviewing the ruling, but committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., was unavailable for comment, a spokeswoman said.