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NSA phone spying program ruled illegal by US court

An NSA spy program that collects data from the private phone calls of millions of Americans was ruled illegal by a US appeals court on Thursday, May 7, 2015
An NSA spy program that collects data from the private phone calls of millions of Americans was ruled illegal by a US appeals court on Thursday, May 7, 2015 Paul J. Richards / AFP

The systematic collection of millions of Americans’ phone records under a spy program operated by the National Security Agency (NSA) is illegal as it exceeds the scope of what Congress authorised, a US appeals court ruled on Thursday.


The laws used as a basis for the bulk data collection "have never been interpreted to authorise anything approaching the breadth of the sweeping surveillance at issue here," the 2nd US Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan said in a 97-page decison.

The ruling came in a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union against the NSA and the FBI, following disclosures about the vast surveillance programs in documents leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

The "metadata" collected from millions of phone calls includes the numbers called, times and other information -- but not the content of conversations.

Still, civil liberties advocates argue the program is a massive intrusion on privacy while providing only minimal help in the anti-terrorism effort.

The court said metadata can reveal considerable personal information such as whether a person is a victim of a crime, or "civil, political, or religious affiliations" and "whether and when he or she is involved in intimate relationships."

The New York appellate court did not address the constitutional issues of the bulk collection of phone metadata, but said the government went far beyond what Congress intended in Section 215 of the Patriot Act, a law aimed at allowing authorities to thwart terrorism.

"There is no evidence that Congress intended for those statutes to authorise the bulk collection of every American's toll billing or educational records and to aggregate them into a database," the appellate panel said in the opinion.

"The interpretation that the government asks us to adopt defies any limiting principle. If the government is correct, it could use (Section) 215 to collect and store in bulk any other existing metadata available anywhere in the private sector... relating to all Americans."

The law has been used by the NSA to locate people linked to potential terrorist attacks outside the United States and by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in domestic surveillance.

Thursday’s decision voided a December 2013 ruling in which US District Judge William Pauley in Manhattan found the NSA program lawful. The appeals court sent the case back to him for further review.

'Resounding victory'

"This decision is a resounding victory for the rule of law," said ACLU attorney Alex Abdo, who argued the case before the three-judge panel in September.

"For years, the government secretly spied on millions of innocent Americans based on a shockingly broad interpretation of its authority. 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."

Edward Price, spokesman for President Barack Obama's National Security Council, said the administration was examining the court ruling.

"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," he said in an email.

"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."

Law set to expire

The court declined to issue an injunction to halt the program, saying it would make little sense since the law is set to expire on June 1.

Lawmakers are currently debating whether to reform the law or extend it.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Richard Burr, the Republican chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, have introduced legislation to extend Section 215 and other parts of the Patriot Act through 2020.

The existing NSA program has repeatedly been approved in secret by a national security court established under a 1978 law, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).

“FISA has been critically important in keeping us safe in America,” McConnell said on Thursday.

Other senators welcomed Thursday’s decision.

Senator Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican and presidential candidate, tweeted that “phone records of law abiding citizens are none of the NSA’s business! Pleased with the ruling this morning”.

Another presidential candidate, Democratic Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, tweeted that “the NSA is out of control and operating in an unconstitutional manner.”

Senators Patrick Leahy and Mike Lee said in a joint statement that the ruling highlights the need to pass their reform bill called the USA Freedom Act, which would limit bulk data collection.

"We will not consent to any extension of this program. The House is poised to pass the bipartisan USA Freedom Act of 2015 next week, and the Senate should do the same."

But ACLU executive director Anthony Romero said the reform proposals from Congress "look anemic in light of the serious issues raised by the Second Circuit," adding that "Congress needs to up its reform game if it's going to address the court's concerns".

The case is among several pending in US courts challenging the government's surveillance authority. In this case, a lower court dismissed the ACLU petition in late 2013.

In a separate case filed by conservative activist Larry Klayman, a district court judge in Washington ruled in 2013 that the NSA program was unconstitutional. That case remains under appeal.


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