NEW YORK - Federal lawsuits were filed Tuesday seeking to halt President Bush's domestic eavesdropping program, calling it an "illegal and unconstitutional program" of electronic eavesdropping on American citizens.
The lawsuits accusing Bush of exceeding his constitutional powers were filed in federal court in New York by the Center for Constitutional Rights and in Detroit by the American Civil Liberties Union.
The New York suit, filed on behalf of the center and individuals, names Bush, the head of the National Security Agency, and the heads of the other major security agencies, challenging the NSA's surveillance of persons within the United States without judicial approval or statutory authorization.
It asked a judge to stop Bush and government agencies from conducting warrantless surveillance of communications in the United States.
The Detroit suit, which also names the NSA, was filed by the ACLU, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Greenpeace and several individuals.
Messages seeking comment were left Tuesday morning with the National Security Agency and the Justice Department.
Bush, who said the wiretapping is legal and necessary, has pointed to a congressional resolution passed after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, that authorized him to use force in the fight against terrorism as allowing him to order the program.
The program authorized eavesdropping of international phone calls and e-mails of people deemed a terror risk.
But the New York lawsuit noted that federal law already allows the president to conduct warrantless surveillance during the first 15 days of a war and allows court authorization of surveillance for agents of foreign powers or terrorist groups.
Instead of following the law, Bush "unilaterally and secretly authorized electronic surveillance without judicial approval or congressional authorization," the lawsuit said.
At a news conference, Center for Constitutional Rights Legal Director Bill Goodman portrayed the president as a man on an unprecedented power grab at the expense of basic democratic principles.
He said the public was starting to understand the assertion that the erosion of individual rights is a slippery slope that lets the government "brand anyone a terrorist with no right to counsel, no right to be brought before a judge and no right to privacy in communications."
The Detroit lawsuit said the plaintiffs, who frequently communicate by telephone and e-mail with people in the Middle East and Asia, have a "well-founded belief" that their communications are being intercepted by the government.
"By seriously compromising the free speech and privacy rights of the plaintiffs and others, the program violates the First and Fourth Amendments of the United States Constitution," the lawsuit states.
In its suit in New York, the Center for Constitutional Rights maintained its work was directly affected by the surveillance because its lawyers represent a potential class of hundreds of Muslim foreign nationals detained after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
It said its attorney-client privilege was likely violated as it represented hundreds of men detained without charge as enemy combatants at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Station and a Canadian citizen who was picked up at a New York airport while changing planes, sent to Syria and tortured and detained without charges for nearly a year.
The group said the surveillance program has inhibited its ability to represent clients vigorously, making it hard to communicate via telephone and e-mail with overseas clients, witnesses and others for fear the conversations would be overheard.
Plaintiff Rachel Meeropol, an attorney at the center, said she believes she has been targeted. "I'm personally outraged that my confidential communication with my clients may have been listened to by the U.S. government," she said.