Two leading civil rights groups were to file lawsuits yesterday against the Bush administration over its domestic spying program to determine whether the operation was used to monitor 10 defense lawyers, journalists, scholars, political activists and other Americans with ties to the Middle East.
The two lawsuits, which are being filed separately by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in the US District Court in Detroit and the Center for Constitutional Rights in the US District Court in Manhattan, are the first major court challenges to the eavesdropping program.
Both groups are seeking to have the courts order an immediate end to the program, which the groups say is illegal and unconstitutional. The Bush administration has strongly defended the legality and necessity of the surveillance program, and officials said the Justice Department would probably vigorously oppose the lawsuits on national security grounds.
Justice Department officials would not comment on any specific individuals who might have been singled out under the National Security Agency (NSA) program, and they said the department would review the lawsuits once they were filed.
Brian Roehrkasse, a spokesman for the Justice Department, added on Monday that "the NSA surveillance activities described by the president were conducted lawfully and provide valuable tools in the war on terrorism to keep America safe and protect civil liberties."
The lawsuits seek to answer one of the major questions surrounding the eavesdropping program:
Has it been used solely to single out the international phone calls and e-mail messages of people with known links to al-Qaeda, as President Bush and his most senior advisers have maintained, or has it been abused in ways that civil rights advocates say could hark back to the political spying abuses of the 1960s and 1970s?
"There's almost a feeling of deja vu with this program," said James Bamford, an author and journalist who is one of five individual plaintiffs in the ACLU lawsuit who say they suspect that the program may have been used to monitor their international communications.
"It's a return to the bad old days of the NSA," said Bamford, who has written two widely cited books on the intelligence agency.
Although the program's public disclosure last month has generated speculation that it might have been used to monitor journalists or politicians, no evidence has emerged to support that idea.
Bush administration officials point to a secret audit by the Justice Department last year that reviewed a sampling of security agency interceptions involving Americans and that they said found no documented abuses.
The lawsuit to be filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights has as plaintiffs four lawyers at the center and a legal assistant there who work on terrorism-related cases at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and overseas, which often involves international e-mail messages and phone calls.
Similarly, the plaintiffs in the ACLU lawsuit include five Americans who work in international policy and terrorism, along with the ACLU and three other advocacy groups.
"We don't have any direct evidence" that the plaintiffs were monitored by the security agency, said Ann Beeson, associate legal director for the ACLU.
"But the plaintiffs have a well-founded belief that they may have been monitored, and there's a real chilling effect in the fear that they can no longer have confidential discussions with clients or sources without the possibility that the NSA is listening," she said.