A US district judge ordered the Bush administration on Thursday to stop a domestic wiretap program it says protects Americans from terrorism but which the judge said violated their civil rights.
US District Judge Anna Diggs Taylor in Detroit is the first judge to rule on the legality of the National Security Agency's (NSA) program, which the White House says is a key tool for fighting terrorism that has already stopped attacks.
She said the wiretaps under a five-year-old "Terrorist Surveillance Program" violated freedom of speech, protections against unreasonable searches and a constitutional check on the power of the presidency.
"There are no hereditary kings in America and no powers not created by the Constitution," Taylor said in a 44-page ruling.
"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.
"The three separate branches of government were developed as a check and balance for one another," she said.
The administration, buoyed by polls showing Americans back its handling of security and terrorism, appealed against the federal court ruling, saying: "We couldn't disagree more."
The NSA program has been widely criticized by civil rights activists and raised concern among lawmakers, including some in President George W. Bush's own Republican Party, who say he may have overstepped his powers.
Bush authorized the NSA program after the Sept. 11 attacks on the US, and it became public last year.
Both sides agreed the program could go on until the judge hears the government's case for a stay pending appeal.
The program allows the government to eavesdrop on the international phone calls and e-mails of US citizens without obtaining a warrant, if those wiretaps are made to track suspected al-Qaeda operatives.
"We have confidence in the lawfulness of this program," Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, said after Thursday's ruling.
"That's why the appeal has been lodged," he said.
White House press secretary Tony Snow said the Bush administration "couldn't disagree more with this ruling."
He said the program carefully targets communications of sus-pected terrorists and "has helped stop terrorist attacks and saved American lives."
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed the suit which could well end up being heard by the US Supreme Court.
The judge sided with the government on one issue -- that arguments in open court about the NSA's "data mining" of phone records would jeopardize national security and rejected an ACLU challenge to that part of the NSA's surveillance program.
The ACLU suit was filed on behalf of academics, attorneys, journalists and nonprofit groups that regularly communicate with people in the Middle East and believed their phone calls and e-mail may have been intercepted by the US government.
"The ruling of the judge is not only a victory for the American Muslim community but a victory for the entire American population," said Dawud Walid, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations for Michigan, which joined the ACLU as a plaintiff in the lawsuit.