White House ordered to halt wire-taps without warrants

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A federal judge yesterday ordered an immediate end to the Bush administration's practice of eavesdropping without a warrant on the phone calls and emails of US residents suspected of links with al-Qa'ida and other terrorist groups.

District Judge Anna Diggs Taylor, of Detroit, ruled that the National Security Agency wiretapping programme, initiated in 2002 in response to the 9/11 attacks and made public by the New York Times last December, represented an abuse of presidential power and violated the privacy and free speech provisions of the US Constitution.

"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 in a 44-page ruling.

Since the programme came to light, the Bush administration has argued that it was justified in circumventing the courts because of the exigencies of its self-declared war on terror. A law passed by Congress in 1978, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, allows the government to initiate a wiretap without permission in an emergency, but insists that it be ratified by a special judge within 72 hours.

Judge Taylor's ruling was the second major rebuff in a month to the Bush administration's aggressive pursuit of executive power in the war on terror. In July, the Supreme Court decreed that so-called "enemy combatants" at Guantanamo Bay could not be exempted from either the oversight of the US judicial system or the Geneva Conventions.

Unlike the Supreme Court ruling, however, Judge Taylor's decision is still subject to appeal.

The Justice Department responded almost immediately with its intention to pursue the matter higher up the federal court system, saying the programme was "an essential tool for the intelligence community in the war on terror".

The department was also expected to ask to be able to continue its wiretapping practices while the appellate ruling remains pending.