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Two groups sue over NSA wiretap program

Complaints: Bush exceeding presidential authority

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NEW YORK (CNN) -- Two lawsuits were filed Tuesday against the National Security Agency over its no-warrant wiretapping program, claiming the domestic eavesdropping is unconstitutional and that President Bush exceeded his authority by authorizing it.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed suit in the Eastern District of Michigan on behalf of several journalists, authors, scholars and organizations.

Separately, the Center for Constitutional Rights filed suit in the Southern District of New York on behalf of "clients who fit the criteria described by the attorney general for targeting" under the program.

The ACLU's 60-page complaint names the NSA and its director, Lt. Gen. Keith Alexander, as defendants, and the New York suit names the NSA, Alexander and "the heads of the other major security agencies." (Watch White House respond to suits -- 1:31)

"President Bush may believe he can authorize spying on Americans without judicial or congressional approval, but this program is illegal, and we intend to put a stop to it," ACLU Executive Director Anthony D. Romero said.

Responding to the lawsuits, Justice Department spokesman Brian Roehrkasse said, "We believe these cases are without merit and plan to vigorously defend against such charges."

And White House spokesman Scott McClellan said "the frivolous lawsuits ... do nothing to help enhance civil liberties or protect the American people."

After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Bush authorized the NSA to intercept communications between people inside the United States, including American citizens, and terrorism suspects overseas, without obtaining a warrant.

Bush and other administration officials contend his constitutional powers as commander in chief as well as a congressional resolution passed in the wake of the terrorist attacks provide the legal authority for the no-warrant surveillance. (Watch the attorney general defend the program -- 4:16)

In a written statement, Romero said "surveillance of Americans is a chilling assertion of presidential power that has not been seen since the days of Richard Nixon."

In an interview Monday on CNN's "Larry King Live," Attorney General Alberto Gonzales defended the program, saying that it "has been carefully reviewed by lawyers from throughout the administration" and that "the president does have the legal authorities to authorize this program." (Full story)

But some Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill have expressed skepticism about the program. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, plans to hold hearings about it next month. Gonzales is expected to testify. (Full story)

Al Gore, the former vice president and 2000 presidential candidate, said Monday that the use of the NSA to eavesdrop on Americans without court approval shows that Bush "has been breaking the law repeatedly and persistently." (Full story)

'Rule of law'

Critics of the program point out that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 covers domestic wiretaps, requiring the government to go to a FISA court to seek a warrant within 72 hours of establishing such a wiretap.

"The prohibition against government eavesdropping on American citizens is well-established and crystal clear," said ACLU Associate Legal Director Ann Beeson, lead counsel in the group's lawsuit.

"President Bush's claim that he is not bound by the law is simply astounding. Our democratic system depends on the rule of law, and not even the president can issue illegal orders that violate constitutional principles."

The ACLU lawsuit asks the court to find that the program violates the Constitution's First and Fourth amendments -- "free speech and associational rights" and "privacy rights" -- as well as the "principle of separation of powers" of the executive and legislative branches of government.

The lawsuit contends the spying program is illegal also because it fails to follow established law.

The other lawsuit seeks to protect the Center for Constitutional Rights' attorneys and their clients.

"Given that the government has accused many of CCR's overseas clients of being associated with al Qaeda or of interest to the 9/11 investigation, there is little question that these attorneys have been subject to the NSA surveillance program," said a statement issued by the group.

"The center filed today's lawsuit in order to protect CCR attorneys' right to represent their clients free of unlawful and unchecked surveillance.

"On this, the day following Martin Luther King Day, we are saddened that the illegal electronic surveillance that once targeted that great American has again become characteristic of our present government," Bill Goodman, CCR legal director, said in the statement.

"As was the case with Dr. King, this illegal activity is cloaked in the guise of national security. In reality, it reflects an attempt by the Bush administration to exercise unchecked power."

Both suits ask the courts to stop the program.

Watergate comparison

Journalist James Bamford, a plaintiff in the ACLU suit and author of "The Puzzle Palace: Inside the National Security Agency, America's Most Secret Intelligence Organization," said "the spying program removes a necessary firewall that would prevent the kind of government abuse seen during the Watergate scandal."

Other plaintiffs include journalists Christopher Hitchens and Tara McKelvey, scholars Barnett Rubin and Larry Diamond, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Greenpeace and the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

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