Federal Court Rules NSA Mass Phone Data Collection Program Illegal
A US federal appeals court has ruled that a National Security Agency program under which billions of Americans’ phone records were systematically collected in a bid to combat terrorism is illegal.
The 2nd US Circuit Court of Appeals in New York City ruled Thursday that the NSA metadata collection program, which was revealed nearly two years ago by exiled whistleblower Edward Snowden, is illegal under the Patriot Act, a highly controversial measure enacted after the September 11, 2001 al-Qaeda terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, DC that critics argue has eroded Americans’ civil liberties.
Circuit Judge Gerard Lynch wrote for a three-judge panel that Section 215 of the Patriot Act anti-terrorism law, which deals with the government’s ability to collect business records, cannot be interpreted to allow NSA mass data collection, despite claims by both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations.
Lynch wrote in his 97-page decision that the NSA program “exceeds the scope of what Congress has authorized” and 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.”
“Such expansive development of government repositories of formerly private records would be an unprecedented contraction of the privacy expectations of all Americans,” Lynch wrote. “We would expect such a momentous decision to be preceded by substantial debate, and expressed in unmistakable language. There is no evidence of such a debate.”
The court did not rule on the constitutionality of the NSA program, with Lynch writing it would be “prudent” to allow Congress to decide how much government surveillance is permissible given legal restraints and national security concerns. Congress is currently debating how to renew surveillance authority granted under Section 215, which is set to expire June 1. Some lawmakers are alarmed by what many Americans perceive as excessive government intrusion, as Section 215 has been used by the NSA to gather phone data from millions of Americans who are not suspected of any terrorist activity.
“The dragnet collection of Americans’ phone records is unnecessary and ineffective, and now a federal appellate court has found that the program is illegal,” said a joint statement from Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), and Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) following Thursday’s ruling. “Congress should not reauthorize a bulk collection program that the court has found to violate the law. We will not consent to any extension of this program.”
But Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), who is running for president, defended the NSA program on the Senate floor prior to the court ruling.
“A perception has been created, including by political figures who serve in this chamber, that the United States government is listening to your phone calls or going through your bills as a matter of course,” said Rubio. “That is absolutely and categorically false.”
Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) expressed his disappointment at the court’s decision.
“We were reminded again in Texas this week that the dark forces of radical Islamic extremism remain determined to carry out attacks against our nation,” McCain said, referring to Sunday’s attack by two gunmen outside a Garland, Texas exhibit showcasing cartoons of the Islamic ‘prophet’ Muhammad. “We must do everything in our power to stop these attacks before they happen. To do so, we must make sure that our intelligence agencies have the necessary tools in their toolbox to get the job done.”
The House of Representative is set to approve the USA Freedom Act, which would end NSA bulk metadata collection and reform the process by which government agencies petition the secret FISA court to obtain data collection warrants. The USA Freedom Act is a compromise measure hammered out between reform advocates and House Republican leaders, who have been hesitant to accept any significant Patriot Act reform.
In the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) spoke out against the USA Freedom Act, which he said “would replace Section 215 with an untested, untried and more cumbersome system.”
“It would not end bulk collection of call data,” McConnell argued. “Instead, it would have untrained corporate (phone company) employees with uncertain supervision and protocols do the collecting.”
Digital rights advocates hailed Thursday’s court ruling.
”This is a great and welcome decision and ought to make Congress pause to consider whether the small changes contained in the USA Freedom Act are enough,” Cindy Cohn, executive director of the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), said in a statement. ”The 2nd Circuit rejected on multiple grounds the government’s radical reinterpretation of Section 215 that underpinned its secret shift to mass seizure and search of Americans’ telephone records,” Cohn’s statement continued. “While the court did not reach the constitutional issues, it certainly noted the serious problems with blindly embracing the third-party doctrine—the claim that you lose all constitutional privacy protections whenever a third-party, like your phone company, has sensitive information about your actions.”
The White House responded to Thursday’s ruling by announcing it was reviewing the court’s decision.
“Without commenting on the ruling today, 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,” White House National Security Spokesman Ned Price said in a statement. “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.”