A federal appeals court ruled Thursday the National Security Agency’s controversial collection of millions of Americans’ phone records isn’t authorized by the Patriot Act, as the Bush and Obama administrations have long maintained.
The NSA has used the Patriot Act to justify collecting records of nearly every call made in the U.S. and entering them into a database to search for possible contacts among terrorism suspects.
The scope of the program was revealed when former NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked documents describing the program, triggering a national debate over the extent of the data collection.
The ruling by the three-judge panel in New York comes at a delicate point in the national debate over government surveillance, as Section 215 of the Patriot Act is due to expire next month and lawmakers are haggling about whether to renew it, modify it, or let it lapse.
The court’s ruling was in response to a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union arguing the data collection should be stopped because it violates Americans’ privacy rights. A lower court judge ruled the program was constitutional, and the civil liberties group appealed, leading to Thursday’s decision.
”The text of (Section 215) cannot bear the weight the government asks us to assign to it, and…does not authorize the telephone metadata program,’’ the court wrote.
The court declined to address the issue of whether the program violates Americans’ rights, because, they found, it was never properly authorized by existing law.
The judges didn’t order the collection to stop, noting that the legislative debate and the looming expiration of Section 215 will force action on the issue one way or another. The judges also note that if Congress decides to approve some version of the phone data collection program in coming days, then the privacy issue could be revisited in court.
The panel sent the case back to the lower court judge for further review based on the appeals court findings.
The legal fight will continue and the U.S. can appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. But the expiration of Section 215 on June 1 essentially puts the fate of the program in the hands of Congress in the short-term.
It is unclear what the appellate court ruling will mean for Congress, which has been scrambling in recent days to decide what to do with Section 215.
Source: The Wall Street Journal | Devlin Barrett, Damian Paletta