WASHINGTON --Two leading civil rights groups say they plan to file lawsuits today 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 in U.S. District Court in Detroit and the Center for Constitutional Rights in U.S. 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 surveillance program as legal and necessary, and officials said the Justice Department would probably vigorously oppose the lawsuits on national security grounds.
Brian Roehrkasse, a spokesman for the Justice Department, said yesterday 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."
Justice Department officials would not say who might have been singled out under the National Security Agency program, and they said the department would review the lawsuits once they were filed.
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-Qaida, as President Bush and his 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.
The debate over the legality of Bush's eavesdropping program will be at the center of congressional hearings expected to begin next month.
Former Vice President Al Gore entered the fray yesterday with a speech in Washington that accused Bush of running roughshod over the Constitution.
American liberties, Gore said, "have been placed at serious risk by the unprecedented claims of the administration to a truly breathtaking expansion of executive power."
"As we begin this new year," he continued, "the executive branch of our government has been caught eavesdropping on huge numbers of American citizens and has brazenly declared that it has the unilateral right to continue, without regard to the established law enacted by Congress to prevent such abuses."