Court rules NSA program gathering bulk telephone data illegal
WASHINGTON — A federal appeals court ruled Thursday that the National Security Agency’s controversial collection of Americans’ phone records, the subject of documents leaked by Edward Snowden, is not legal under the Patriot Act.
The Second Circuit Court of Appeals held in the case, which was brought by the ACLU, that the telephone metadata collection program “exceeds the scope of what Congress has authorized.” The court did not rule on a larger Constitutional issue and sent the case back down to a lower court for further proceedings.
The program gathers up bulk telephone records to enable targeted searches based on telephone numbers or other identifiers associated with terrorist organizations.
A three-judge panel held that the text of the Patriot Act “cannot bear the weight the government asks us to assign to it and that it does not authorize the telephone metadata program.”
“If Congress chooses to authorize such a far-reaching and unprecedented program, it has every opportunity to do so, unambiguously,” the court said. “Until such times as it does so, however, we decline to deviate from widely accepted interpretations of well-established legal standards. ”
Steve Vladeck, a law professor at American University, called the decision a “landmark ruling” and “critically important.”
But, he added, “what it means going forward depends entirely on Congress, because this provision was set to expire on June 1 anyway.”
The court said it wouldn’t block the provision while the case is reconsidered at the lower court.
National Security Council spokesman Ned Price told CNN that the White House was reviewing the decision.
“The President has been clear that he believes we should end the Section 215 bulk telephony metadata program as it currently exists by creating an alternative mechanism to preserve the program’s essential capabilities without the government holding the bulk data,” Price said. “We continue to work closely with members of Congress from both parties to do just that, and we have been encouraged by good progress on bipartisan, bicameral legislation that would implement these important reforms.”