CHICAGO - The nation's largest lawyers group on Monday denounced President Bush's controversial warrantless domestic surveillance program, calling on him to abide by the Constitution's limitations on presidential power.
Bush's secret eavesdropping program has prompted a heated debate about presidential powers in the war on terror since it was disclosed in December.
"The issue here is not whether the president can conduct secret surveillance," American Bar Association President Michael Greco said. "The issue is whether the president can unilaterally conduct secret surveillance, taking into his hands the awesome power to invade privacy."
The ABA adopted a policy during its midyear meeting in Chicago opposing any future government use of electronic surveillance in the United States for foreign intelligence purposes without first obtaining warrants from a special court set up under a the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
Instead, the ABA said if the president believes the current FISA is inadequate to protect Americans, he should to ask Congress to amend the act.
Despite its harsh criticism of the program, the ABA also stressed that it was not against supporting the administration's need to combat terrorism.
"We should stand shoulder to shoulder with the president in our desire to fight terrorism in this country and around the world, but we cannot allow the Constitution and our rights to become victim to our fight against terrorism," said Neal Sonnett, a Miami attorney who headed an ABA task force that examined the secret spying program's legal issues.
Bush and his administration have defended the warrantless eavesdropping, saying it is needed to fill a gap in U.S. security. Bush said last week that lawyers in the White House and Justice Department signed off on the program's legality.
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has insisted that the president was within his power to eavesdrop on Americans without first obtaining warrants as part of the U.S. war on terror.
White House spokesman Allen Abney said Monday the "administration has provided ample legal justification" for the program, which is "firmly grounded" in the law.
Lawmakers from both parties have been debating the eavesdropping program.
Several Democrats have questioned the program's legality and said the administration should have sought greater congressional cooperation.
Some Republicans also have been critical, including Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., who has proposed that the FISA court review the program and decide whether it is legal.
But other Republicans, including House Intelligence Committee Chairman Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, have defended its legal standing.
The ABA on Monday urged Congress to affirm that when it authorized Bush to go to war in September 2001 it did not intend to have that authorization include a warrantless spying program.
Instead, Congress would need to explicitly say the program was permitted.
As part of its resolution, the ABA also called on Congress to investigate the surveillance program to determine the extent of the telephone and e-mail spying, the program's legality and whether any of the information obtained was used in legal proceedings.