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The Supreme Court dealt a setback Tuesday to civil rights and privacy advocates who oppose the Bush administration's warrantless wiretapping program.

The justices, without comment, turned down an appeal from the American Civil Liberties Union to let it pursue a lawsuit against the program that began shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

The action underscored the difficulty of mounting a challenge to the eavesdropping, which remains classified and was confirmed by President Bush only after a newspaper article revealed it.

"It's very disturbing that the president's actions will go unremarked upon by the court," said Jameel Jaffer, director of the ACLU's national security project. "In our view, it shouldn't be left to executive branch officials alone to determine the limits."

The Terrorist Surveillance Program no longer exists, although the administration has maintained it was legal.

The ACLU sued on behalf of itself, other lawyers, reporters and scholars, arguing that the program was illegal and that they had been forced to alter how they communicate with foreigners who were likely to have been targets of the wiretapping.

A federal judge in Detroit largely agreed, but the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed the suit, saying the plaintiffs could not prove their communications had been monitored and thus could not prove they had been harmed by the program.

The government has refused to turn over information about the closely guarded program that could reveal who has been under surveillance.

ACLU officials described the situation as a Catch-22 because the government says the identities of people who were wiretapped is secret. But only people who know they have been wiretapped can sue over the program.

A separate lawsuit against telecommunications companies that have cooperated with the government is pending in the San Francisco appeals court. A U.S. district court also is examining whether the warrantless surveillance of people in the United States violates the law that regulates the wiretapping of suspected terrorists and requires the approval of a secret court.

The administration announced in January 2007 that it would put intercepts of communications on U.S. soil under the oversight of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

The ACLU, in urging the justices to consider its case, said that because the administration ended the warrantless wiretapping, it could easily restart it.

In August, Congress made temporary changes to FISA that made the warrantless wiretapping legal in some instances. Those changes expired over the weekend.

Fast Facts

Actions taken by the Supreme Court Tuesday:

Won't hear

-Appeals to intervene in lawsuits by Hurricane Katrina victims who seek to force insurers to pay for damages from the flooding that followed the failure of New Orleans levees.

-An appeal from two former University of Alabama assistant football coaches who lost their jobs after an NCAA investigation of the Crimson Tide's football program.

-An appeal by Ford Motor Co. in a tax dispute with the cities of Seattle and Tacoma, Wash.

Will hear

-A dispute over a labor union's use of fees paid by nonunion employees to finance the labor organization's court battles in other states.

-Arguments on whether evidence must be suppressed when authorities base an arrest on incorrect information from police files.

-A dispute between Montana and Wyoming over water rights in two rivers that flow through both states.

Associated Press