Washington: A federal district judge has struck down as "illegal and unconstitutional" President George W Bush's wiretapping programme and ordered the National Security Agency (NSA) to shut it down.
A US district court judge in Detroit, Michigan struck down the NSA's programme to secretly listen on international telephone calls to or from the United States without obtaining a warrant.
The judge, Anna Diggs Taylor ruled the "Terrorist Surveillance Program" is "unconstitutional," saying it violates the right to free speech and privacy.
The judge also issued a sweeping rebuke of the once-secret domestic-surveillance effort that the White House authorised following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
The Bush administration has acknowledged that the programme violates a 1978 law that requires the government to obtain warrants to wiretap Americans, but has argued that the president has the wartime authority to override the law.
In a 43-page opinion, Judge Anna Diggs Taylor rejected that argument of the administration. She said President Bush violated federal statutes and constitutional protections for privacy and free speech when he authorised the military to wiretap Americans' international calls and e-mails without court oversight, overstepping the limits of his executive power.
"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," Taylor wrote, later adding, "There are no hereditary kings in America."
The ruling is the first step in a case that is likely to go before the Supreme Court. The Bush administration, calling the programme an "essential tool" in the war on terrorism, immediately appealed the ruling and asked the judge not to enforce the injunction. The surveillance will continue until a hearing on the request.
The lawsuit was brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and several legal and advocacy groups, welcomed the ruling.
However, White House spokesman Tony Snow assailed the ruling and defended what the administration calls the Terrorist Surveillance Programme as "one of our most critical and effective tools" in preventing terrorist attacks.
The administration has provided few details about the programme, but acknowledged that President Bush authorised the NSA, without seeking warrants, to intercept calls and e-mails between Americans and people overseas if either party is suspected of ties to terrorism.
The Justice Department on Thursday released a statement insisting that Bush has the legal power to authorise such wiretapping without obtaining warrants.
"In the ongoing conflict with al-Qaeda and its allies, the President has the primary duty under the Constitution to protect the American people," the statement said. "The Constitution gives the President the full authority necessary to carry out that solemn
duty and we believe the programme is lawful and protects civil liberties."