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A US appeals court has allowed the government to continue its controversial warrantless surveillance program pending a full review of a ruling by a lower court that the practice is unconstitutional.

The unanimous ruling by three judges ruling sitting in the 6th US Circuit Court of Appeals means the Bush Administration can continue to monitor the international email and telephone communications of Americans without interception warrants during a legal review, which might take months, AP reports. However the American Civil Liberties Union, which brought the lawsuit, is hopeful of a decision by the end of the year.

The practice of so-called warrantless wiretapping came to light after the New York Times reported that the president had authorised the National Security Agency (NSA) to intercept communications. The Bush Administration argues that the program provides crucial helping in preventing terrorist attacks. Critics, such as the ACLU, describe it as "massive and illegal program" to wiretap and data-mine Americans' communications that is an abuse of executive powers and in violation of constitutional protection for free speech and privacy. The ACLU argues that the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act gives government sufficient powers to monitor suspected terrorists. The government argues that the changing dynamics of terrorism mean waiting for a court to take action might hinder investigations.

In August, US District Judge Anna Diggs Taylor sided with critics in declaring warrantless wiretapping as unconstitutional. She declined to postpone her order prohibiting warrantless wiretapping pending appeal, but gave the government the option of asking the appeal court to review this decision. In reaching their decision to allow warrantless surveillance to continue (at least temporarily), appeal court judges said they considered the likely success of an appeal balanced against the potential harm a decision would have on either side of the argument with the public interest.

Other groups aside from the ACLU has mounted lawsuits challenging warrantless wiretapping. Judge Taylor, however, is only the only judge to rule them unconstitutional. The issue seems destined to eventually be decided by the US Supreme Court. ®

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