In a major legal rebuke to the Bush administration's assertive and often secretive handling of the war on terror, a federal judge in Michigan ordered the administration to immediately cease operation of its warrantless domestic surveillance program.
The decision by Judge Anna Diggs Taylor of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, which comes in a lawsuit filed in January, will not be enforced until after a hearing on Sept. 7, when the federal government will have a chance to argue before the judge against today's decision.
Taylor refuted the government argument that the case be dismissed because a public defense of the program in court could jeopardize its efficacy as a tool in the war on terror.
"It was never the intent of the framers to give the president such unfettered control," she wrote in the opinion, "particularly where his actions blatantly disregard the parameters clearly enumerated in the Bill of Rights. The three separate branches of government were developed as a check and balance for one another."
Even if Taylor rules after the Sept. 7 hearing that the injunction should stand and the program should be shut down, further appeals from the government seem a foregone conclusion.
Still, the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, which include the American Civil Liberties Union, several journalists, and the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said they feared the government was monitoring their communications without a warrant.
"Today's ruling is a landmark victory against the abuse of power that has become the hallmark of the Bush administration," ACLU executive director Anthony D. Romero said. "Government spying on innocent Americans without any kind of warrant and without congressional approval runs counter to the very foundations of our democracy. We hope that Congress follows the lead of the court and demands that the president adhere to the rule of law."
Advocates of the program, both in Congress and inside the administration, said immediately that the ruling would weaken the United States in the war on terror.
White House Press Secretary Tony Snow said in a written statement that the administration "could not disagree with this ruling more."
Snow also invoked the recent foiling by British and Pakistani authorities of an alleged plot to blow up planes flying from England to the United States, though he did not say whether the domestic surveillance program yielded information used in the investigation.
The injunction is the first decisive action by the federal court system against the warrantless domestic spying program since press reports of the program, which were leaked to the New York Times, were published late in 2005.
In a 44-page decision, Taylor ruled that the terror surveillance program, as described by the White House and administration, violates both the Constitution and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978.
Taylor disagreed with the Bush administration's argument that Congress had implicitly authorized the program when it authorized the use of force in executing the war on terror.
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, at a press conference in Washington, defended the program as a vital part of the daily fight against terror. He said it is firmly rooted in established law and has been vetted on a regular, ongoing basis by lawyers both in the administration and at the National Security Agency, though not by outside attorneys.