Appeals court rules NSA phone dragnet is illegal

The National Security Agency does not have legal authority to collect and store data on all U.S. telephone calls, ‎a federal appeals court has ruled.

The decision, the first by an appellate court on the government's sweeping data-collection program, says the Patriot Act does not give the NSA the authority it claims to collect so-called metadata on calls by people who are not specific targets of investigations.

The ruling comes as Congress debates whether to reauthorize the parts of the Patriot Act ‎at issue. They expire June 1.


A bipartisan bill in the House would end the government's bulk collection of phone data, which includes the number dialed by a phone, when the call takes place and how long it lasts. In the Senate, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has pushed a plan to reauthorize the current program but has encountered opposition in both parties.


The appeals court decision likely will strengthen the hand of opponents of the current program.


The three-judge panel, based in New York, unanimously ruled that the current collection program far exceeds the NSA's legal authority.


The part of the law at issue, known as Section 215, allows the government to collect information "relevant to an authorized investigation."


The government argues that records of all telephone calls are relevant because investigators need a complete history in order to search for phone numbers that terrorist suspects may have called. NSA officials repeatedly have likened the searches to the proverbial needle in a haystack, saying they need to have the full haystack in order to search for the needle.


"Such an expansive concept of relevance is unprecedented and unwarranted," the judges ruled. Approving it "would be an unprecedented contraction of the privacy expectations of all Americans."


There is no evidence that Congress intended to give the NSA such broad power when it passed the law after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the judges said.


Because they decided the program wasn't authorized under  the law, the judges declined to rule on whether the program violated the Constitution.


Because Congress is currently debating the program and is expected to decide in a few weeks, the judges did not order the NSA to stop the collection program right away, saying it was "prudent to pause" and let Congress decide.


The White House said in a statement that it was studying the appeals court ruling.


“We are in the process of evaluating the decision handed down this morning,” said Ned Price, a spokesman for the National Security Council.

“The president has been clear that he believes we should end [the bulk collection program]as it currently exists by creating an alternative mechanism to preserve the program’s essential capabilities without the government holding the bulk data," he added.
Opponents of the NSA program applauded the court ruling, with several noting that the decision shifts the debate over its future to Congress and potentially the Supreme Court.


"This is a monumental decision for all lovers of liberty,” said Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination. “While this is a step in the right direction, it is now up to the Supreme Court to strike down the NSA's illegal spying program."

Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said the decision “should help propel Congress to end the program as it is currently structured, and only allow the government to request data from the telephone companies” for a specific, court-authorized investigation.

Schiff said reauthorization of the NSA program by Congress without changes “is not only politically untenable but on shaky legal ground as well.”


The American Civil Liberties Union, which brought the suit on behalf of a group of phone company customers, called the decision “a resounding victory for the rule of law.”

“For years, the government secretly spied on millions of innocent Americans based on a shockingly broad interpretation of its authority,’ said ACLU staff attorney Alex Abdo, who argued the case before the three-judge panel in September.


“The court rightly rejected the government’s theory that it may stockpile information on all of us in case that information proves useful in the future. Mass surveillance does not make us any safer, and it is fundamentally incompatible with the privacy necessary in a free society.”

Source: Los Angeles Times