Lawyers representing Guantanamo Bay detainees asked a federal judge on Thursday to invalidate a four-day old law that lets government agents eavesdrop on suspected terrorists without first getting court-approved warrants.
Lawyers at the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights said the so-called Protect America Act signed into law by President Bush on Sunday is illegal because it gives the national intelligence director and the U.S. attorney general too much power to intercept communications of suspected terrorists overseas - even when they are talking to someone in the United States.
The center's lawsuit, along with about 50 others, are all being considered by U.S. District Court Judge Vaughn Walker in San Francisco.
Center attorney Michael Avery said the new law "redefined the term of electronic surveillance and gives the government new powers, extraordinary powers, unprecedented powers."
In court documents filed Wednesday, government lawyers argued that passage of the new law on Sunday is enough legal grounds for a judge to toss out the Guantanamo detainees' suit.
The center first sued the government last year after the New York Times revealed that the Bush administration had approved a warrantless eavesdropping program in late 2001. They want a judge
to bar the government from eavesdropping on anyone in the United States without first obtaining a warrant.
The center argues that the program jeopardizes their ability to represent clients with suspected Al Qaeda ties because they cannot
be sure that confidential telephone calls and e-mail correspondence
with the Cuba detainees and their families overseas will stay private.
The center said Thursday it intends to also argue in its suit that the new law is unconstitutional.
Government lawyers appearing in court declined to address the constitutionality of the new law, saying that argument is not yet part of the center's lawsuit against President Bush. But they have already gone on record stating their belief that the eavesdropping program is legal.
Also, government lawyer Anthony Coppolino argued that in order for the government to defend itself it would have to reveal sensitive national security secrets.
Walker ruled last year against the government's claim that to defend itself would require divulging security secrets and harm the war on terror. Walker ruled that there was little danger of that because the government's warrantless eavesdropping efforts have already been publicly exposed in the media.
Walker did not make a ruling Thursday.
The government's appeal will be heard Wednesday in San Francisco
by a three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
The consolidated lawsuits before Walker also allege Verizon Communications Inc., BellSouth Corp. and other telecommunications companies illegally turned over its customers' communications on their networks to the National Security Agency without warrants.
(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)